It’s not easy to share responsibility. Successful examples of responsibility being shared within organizations certainly exist — from official job-sharing to collective accountability for corporate goals and outcomes. But getting a given job or project done well depends on having both appropriate structural underpinnings and the right combination of people, with the right meshing of values, commitments, personal strengths, and styles.

What Happens When We Share?

In day-to-day life, there are two primary kinds of sharing. In the first case, two or more people receive something with the express direction, purpose, or understanding that it be jointly enjoyed or managed (say, a shared inheritance or bank account, or shared custody). In the second case, one person gives away something for another’s benefit (for instance, sharing the last piece of cake or sharing the stage) — or to another’s detriment (as in sharing germs).

Sharing can evoke either a sense of loss (if you have to give something up) or a feeling of community and mutual support (if you and a suitable partner are managing well together). Most often, however, we think of sharing as a positive because it benefits a greater number of people or lets more participants handle a given task or responsibility.

Good Examples of Sharing

Sharing credit for a responsibility or project reinforces a sense of teamwork and mutual goals by emphasizing “we” over “me.” The participants get to feel good about the joint accomplishment, and more energy is generated for additional cooperation and collaboration.

Job-sharing can help retain experienced employees who might otherwise not be able to continue full-time employment. It can’t be set up easily or casually because it requires colleagues who work well together and a thoughtful approach to responsibilities, scheduling, information-sharing, and communication. But job-sharing can make a team or organization stronger, more flexible, and more resilient, while maintaining good bench strength and forming a sturdier base for eventual succession planning.

Shared space is more common than ever in co-working facilities that give members access to workspace and attendant services and privileges so long as they comply with the rules of good behavior. The majority of co-working participants enter a preexisting community and adhere to a well-established set of agreements; the upfront agreement helps enforce and reinforce the co-working community’s rules.

When Sharing Goes Sour

And yet if workplace sharing is not structured well, it can create new disruptions. For instance, I had a negative sharing experience when I was a very new manager. Another junior manager and I were promoted to be co-managers of a new function without special planning or mentoring. One of our first responsibilities was to fire a problematic employee who was the legacy of the previous manager under the old structure. We decided when and where it would happen, and who would say which things.

At the appointed time, the employee and I showed up in the conference room, but my co-manager did not. After an awkward wait, I handled the termination alone. The rest of our co-management did not go much better; thankfully, we were eventually reorganized into new roles in which we both had individual responsibility and authority.

More generally, shared workspaces where the co-location is not by choice can also be problematic. In many organizations that have multiple shifts — whether they’re in call centers, warehouses, or even salons or kitchens — different groups of workers use the same space, and difficulties often arise involving adjusting settings or locations for tools, supplies, and furniture. There can be significant variance in the occupants’ preferences and standards for how things should be set up and put away often vary widely, so the “sharing” system inherently includes great potential for friction.

Successful Sharing Requires Planned Caring

How can we get the best value out of workplace sharing, while minimizing the typical chafing and strife? There’s no easy answer, because what we share is amorphous, subjective, individual, and personal. You can’t just legislate it and expect immediate or thorough compliance. The details of agreements, schedules, and assignments won’t be enough to eliminate friction and awkwardness if there isn’t a deep and mutual commitment to both goals and values. (See Whose Job Is It, Anyway? for a different perspective on creating role clarity.)

People are different, and they like different things. They don’t usually want to give something up, whether that means the placement of the desk equipment or their choices about how to do their work. But if they are dedicated to achieving shared outcomes that are beneficial to all participants, they may be able to negotiate and experiment their way to mutual satisfaction and success.