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Relationships

5 Collaboration Mistakes to Avoid in Your Relationship

What work collaborations teach us about improving our romantic relationships.

Key points

  • Companies often recognize the value of high-functioning relationships. Much of the same wisdom applies to romantic relationships.
  • Relationships rely on collaboration and the best collaborations are purposeful, focused, intentional, and coordinated.
  • Five key ways collaborations fail include uneven workloads, inconsistent contributions, power trips, disengagement, and dropping the ball.
Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

You have many different relationships, from those with your friends and family to your romantic partner, to your work friends and colleagues.

They all matter.

Relationships are responsible for much of the stress or fulfillment you experience. Most companies are smart and recognize the value of high-functioning relationships. They wisely spend a lot of time (and money) making sure relationships function optimally because it directly impacts the company’s success (i.e., the bottom line). The best businesses don’t leave things to chance and may even enlist expert consultants to optimize relationship health among co-workers.

Your romantic relationship can benefit from the same expertise.

Though business and romantic relationships have obvious differences, they share many commonalities. Both types of relationships involve problem-solving, spending lots of time together, needing to depend on each other, and having an indefinite future. Given the overlap, can learning more about improving work relationships help your romantic relationships? In short, yes.

To help with this topic, I reached out to Deb Mashek, Ph.D., author of Collabor(h)ate: How to Build Incredible Collaborative Relationships at Work to share her wisdom. Deb is an experienced business advisor, professor, higher education administrator, national nonprofit executive, and founder of Myco Consulting LLC, where she “helps business leaders navigate the relationship headwinds that tank timelines, bottom lines, and well-being.”

Her new book focuses on collaboration. As a relationship scientist, I naturally wondered how her experience and knowledge of workplace collaboration might be useful in romantic relationships.

Your Romantic Relationship is a Collaboration

It may seem odd to think of your relationship and partner this way, but collaborations are built on working together. In your daily life, the person you likely work with the most, across the greatest variety of contexts, is your romantic partner. You may collaborate on household chores, managing a budget, paying the bills, planning vacations, completing household projects, raising the kids, or planning your future. You even collaborate sexually.

When you’re in a relationship, you're no longer completely independent. You’re now interdependent and must consider your partner’s opinions, feelings, motivations, and plans. Doing that well requires careful collaboration.

"Just because you’re not aware of a problem doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem." —Deb Mashek, Ph.D.

Toward Better Collaborations

Collaborations are tricky and ripe for negative experiences because they require us to rely on others. The result is that when asked to describe workplace collaboration, research participants tend to use negative words like “scary,” “risky,” “apprehension,” and “painful.”

To be fair, they also use positive words such as “potential” and “opportunity” (Mashek, 2023)—but clearly, collaborations at work and in love are imperfect. That’s why people see the value in getting it right.

Anyone who has made a big purchase together, moved, or assembled a piece of IKEA furniture with their partner understands the importance of collaboration and the value of doing it well. Yet, most of us have never been trained to collaborate properly. Until now.

Collabor(h)ate is full of practical tips, activities, and guiding questions about improving collaboration, but here is one of the most important: You can’t just wing it. The best collaborations are purposeful and focused. As Deb explains, collaborations require that “… individuals who are working toward the shared goal must coordinate or orchestrate that work in some way.”

Good collaboration is intentional. Great relationships at work and home deserve your attention, knowledge, and skills. Not surprisingly, things can go wrong. Being able to see trouble coming is the best way to avoid it.

The Top 5 Ways Collaborations Go Wrong

There are lots of ways collaborations can flounder. In Collabor(h)ate, Dr. Mashek identifies two dozen ways collaborations can fail. That’s a lot, which emphasizes the challenge of being a good collaborator. Though all of the 24 reasons she gives apply to romantic relationships, here are my top five.

  1. Uneven workload: It happens at work all the time. The people who are good at their job, able to juggle responsibilities, and capable of meeting deadlines, get more to do. Piling responsibilities on them is smart because they get things done. But it isn’t fair. The same can happen in your relationship where one partner carries an unfair burden for making the relationship successful. That’s hard to sustain happily over time, either long-term at work or in your relationship.
  2. Inconsistent contributions: Collaborations and relationships thrive on consistency and predictability. When a person’s contributions are erratic, sometimes they’re energetic and innovative. Other times they’re moody and boring, making collaboration stressful. Inconsistency will creep in naturally over time as people get more comfortable. The need for your consistent “A game” feels less pressing. Because you’re so familiar with your romantic partner, it’s even more likely. Your work team and romantic partner deserve a predictable and consistent solid effort.
  3. “My way or the highway”: We all like to have a say, but sometimes one person shifts into being overly demanding. At work, it's the person who charges ahead without bothering to see if others are on board. In your relationship, it’s the partner who makes decisions and expects the other person to just go along without consulting how the other person feels or what they might want. Asymmetrical power undermines relationships.
  4. Disengagement: Sometimes people are physically there, but not really present psychologically or emotionally. At work, it’s the colleague daydreaming through a meeting. When you’ve been in a job for a long time, it’s easy to become complacent and frankly, a little lazy. At home, it’s the partner going through the motions, putting the relationship on autopilot, and not really making a sincere effort. But it’s important not to take your collaboration for granted and continually put in the work necessary to nurture the relationship and help it grow.
  5. Dropped balls: You have to keep your promises and hold up your end of the bargain. At work, not doing this could mean forgetting to submit a report by a key deadline or neglecting some of your responsibilities. In your relationship, it’s not paying a bill or forgetting to pick up a key ingredient for dinner at the store. Worse, you can drop the ball in your romantic relationship by neglecting the relationship itself. Each partner needs to contribute their fair share and put in the effort. Though everyone would love a maintenance-free relationship, it isn’t realistic.

There are plenty of others ways to be a bad collaborator at work or at home such as: dodging hard conversations, trying to be too perfect, hiding, or undermining. In each case, it’s useful to learn how collaborations can fail, so you can avoid those problems and enjoy a more harmonious and productive romantic relationship.

Conclusion

Collaborations and relationships involve individuals working together thoughtfully to accomplish a mutual goal. Those relationships are important. Businesses know that. But they do something too many of us don’t. They take steps to optimize work relationships by seeking out information, calling in experts, and modifying their approach. Isn’t it time you do the same for your relationship?

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