How to overcome slanxiety in every collaborative writing project
Joe Moses and Jason Tham
It happens every time: during collaborative writing projects someone inevitably raises a concern about someone else who is slacking.
“They’re not pulling their weight.”
“They’re always late.”
“I’m worried about X not getting their work done and I’m going to have to do more than my fair share to make up for them.”
It’s so disheartening. No matter how much we talk about the importance of teams communicating early and often, the worries arise and now we, as instructors or supervisors, have to act.
That’s when we dig in to find out what’s going on with the person who’s complaining. We’re not worried about the slacker yet — it’s the ones who get anxious about slackers, the slanxious ones, that we’re concerned about.
Sometimes you can spot them before they make the first complaint about someone who doesn’t have what they call the right work ethic. They use phrases like these:
“I told them…”
“They don’t get back to me…”
“I had to write the whole thing for them.”
“I like to get things done right away…”
They’re the people who undermine collaboration with unrealistic expectations of others — namely, that others should have the same working habits as they do. The problem with their expectations is that they undermine the key ingredient of successful collaboration: trust.
Trust takes a while to earn and a split-second to lose, and the first person to lose the trust of the team is the one who comes to us with their slanxieties. They lose the team’s trust when, even before complaining, they have sent out exasperated emails to teammates asking where everybody’s work is. They also demotivate teammates when out of their anxiety they develop content that somebody else said they were going to do.
As much as any supposed slacker, the slanxious ones can undermine fruitful collaboration. Acknowledging and accepting the fact of differing writing habits is therefore an important feature of collaborative writing projects, which should also support teammates in managing their expectations and communicating effectively with collaborators.
Where does slanxiety come from?
Part of the problem is project design. When projects don’t have interim deadlines but rely solely on deadlines for completed projects, they set teammates up for exasperation because individuals’ sense of urgency varies so widely.
When projects don’t require teammates to make firm commitments for completing incremental steps, teams gain no sense of how to pace their work, leaving individuals to set their own timelines.
And when teams don’t have a clear idea of dependencies — which tasks must be completed before other tasks can be performed — individuals face periods of wasteful downtime when anxieties can spike.
We have to recognize and accept that some people are deadline driven, while others are driven to complete work as soon as possible after it’s assigned. Both work habits have advantages and disadvantages, and to set a single expectation based on one preference is unfair and unrealistic.
While expecting everyone to work at the same pace doesn’t work, establishing several interim deadlines, making commitments visible, and being mindful of dependencies are all fair and reasonable ways to structure collaborative writing projects.
Setting interim deadlines
If the only deadline in a project is the final due date, teams are very likely to fail. Teams need several interim due dates if they are to accurately set priorities and assess their productivity. Draft due dates before final due dates are a good place to start, but even a draft due date should be preceded by due dates for important milestones for information gathering, research updates, hypothesis sharing, methods discussions, shared purpose statements, and other important developmental stages that represent productive activity. Teammates who are deadline driven benefit enormously from interim due dates, but so do teammates who work in advance. They both benefit from setting priorities and working on first things first.
Making commitments specific and visible
All teammates must make commitments and make them visible to everyone on the team. For commitments to be effective, they need to be concrete and specific — typically in measurable terms. “I’m going to research some stuff by Friday,” is not measurable, but “I’ll spend three hours between now and Friday looking for population data,” or “I’ll write 200 words of data analysis by Friday,” are specific descriptions of productive activity.
Detailing specific activities on a shared document that is visible to all teammates helps to cement the commitment.
Being mindful of dependencies
Dependencies are a fact of collaborative life. Teams can’t write until they’ve defined their audience; they can’t research until they have a research question; they can’t analyze anything until they’ve gathered information; they can’t draw conclusions until they’ve analyzed the information. No one can write an introduction until the team has written something to introduce. Good project design outlines dependencies, interim deadlines, and specific commitments to help teammates work productively.
Teams should work cross-functionally on content instead of by dividing chunks of content by teammate. Working cross-functionally means having all teammates contribute something to each chunk of content — the analysis sections, literature review, findings or discussion sections. Working cross-functionally is one key to reducing the number of dependencies. In contrast, content chunking, or assigning one chunk of content to only one teammate, creates chains of dependencies that slow teams down.
Setting communication ground rules
While we can reasonably expect teammates’ working styles to vary significantly, teams can hold everyone to the same communication guidelines, preferably ones that teams create together. Guidelines need to make clear that being deadline driven doesn’t mean disappearing from group discussions until the last minute and that working in advance doesn’t mean outlining a rigid time frame for the whole team to follow.
Teams should agree that honesty counts and that when their initial commitments turn out to be unrealistic, letting teammates know will not be met with judgement. Teammates get sick, loved ones need attention, work schedules change, other classes take priority — stuff happens. Establishing an atmosphere of trust means expecting people to be pulled in many directions== to forget important information, to double book, to get overwhelmed — and when issues arise, teams must be encouraged to adapt to those realities.
Teammates who like to work in advance should let their teammates know of their preference without expecting everyone to jump on their command. Teammates who are deadline driven should let teammates know of their preference without expecting everyone else to slow down. Making preferences clear, schedules clear, and commitments as accurate as possible are important steps in supporting productivity throughout projects.
Awareness of different work habits only goes so far, and even the best project plan has dependencies. Because working close to deadlines is effective for some teammates and working ahead works for others, few are going to change their habits significantly. Therefore teammates should expect to receive reminders. The reminders should be written in a professional tone and should not suggest that anyone is doing something wrong unless they’ve missed a deadline without having informed teammates in advance. Teammates should acknowledge receipt of reminders at the very least and provide updates on progress with a revised schedule for completing their work.
Missing deadlines is not as big a problem as not warning teammates in advance about missing them. Teammates who fear they’re going to be labeled slackers if they miss a deadline are less likely to broadcast the fact than teammates who trust they won’t be judged. When a teammate is going to miss a deadline, the most important information is not about why. The most important information is about when the team can expect to see the work.
Slacking really is slacking when a teammate makes a commitment, makes it visible, includes measurable goals and a due date, and then 1) doesn’t deliver, and 2) hasn’t notified teammates in advance.
Paying attention to the true complexities of writing and collaboration — and making them visible in project design — helps teams identify the true causes for lapses in productivity — and trust — when they occur. In short, honesty counts.