Collaborative leadership: what it is and how it can bring your teams together

by Matt Bochenski

Collaborative leadership

Collaborative leaders believe in bringing diverse teams together to achieve organizational goals, solve problems, make decisions and share information. But what does it really take to be a more collaborative leader? We take a look.

We often think of businesses as being led by independent thinkers – entrepreneurs who make bold decisions to secure success. But, for many companies today, this isn’t the case. In a world of remote teams and flat company structures, leadership styles are evolving.

What is collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leaders seek to achieve organizational goals by harnessing and encouraging the power of diverse teams. By managing individuals from different functions to solve problems, collaborative leaders empower co-workers to use their wide range of knowledge, skills and experience to work together successfully.

It’s an entirely different approach to the way traditional, top-down organizations work. Rather than involving a wide range of staff in important processes, organizations based on rigid hierarchies can hoard information and confine decision-making to the most senior team. These companies use a chain of command to delegate tasks. This rarely gives people lower down the pecking order an opportunity to share feedback or exercise judgment.

In contrast, collaborative environments aim to break down these silos and focus on unlocking the potential of everybody in the organization.

Collaborative leadership has taken a bit of a hit recently. Our research shows 14% fewer frontline managers have had the opportunity to make big decisions since the COVID-19 pandemic. But it should be on everyone’s agenda. Here’s why.

Different types of collaborative leadership

Leadership can be collaborative on a couple of levels.

Collaborative leadership in tasks and projects

When organizations bring teams together from different departments to work on a task, they often answer to a project manager. In truly collaborative teams, things are a little bit different, as groups decide their aims and targets as a collective. By introducing diverse opinions at the highest level and the earliest stage of the process, teams can have more impact and produce better results.

Imagine a CEO asking their employees to launch a new product. The senior manager has their ideas about the product’s features, retail price and USPs, and assembles a cross-functional team to iron out the more minor details.

Now imagine a CEO asking a cross-functional team to discuss the feasibility of launching a new product. Listening to frontline staff at this earlier stage could provide insight that leads to a better-designed project. It could even result in an entirely different solution. Perhaps a new product isn’t necessary, but a software update or extra support for clients would significantly increase value.

Collaborative leadership in the running of a business

For some businesses, collaborative leadership is responsible for even bigger decisions. Rather than CEOs pulling strings as in a traditional top-down model, forward-thinking organizations use the skills, knowledge and experience of multiple departments as much as possible. This could mean assembling diverse teams in specific scenarios or calling on leaders from different functions for all high-level decisions.

According to an American Express report, a third of millennials believe “the CEO role will no longer be relevant in its current format,” within ten years. And 85% of respondents in a Deloitte survey rated C-suite collaboration as 'important' or 'very important'.

For leaders to remain relevant, the expectation is they'll need to be more visible to workers, more approachable, and more collaborative outside of their traditional hierarchies.

This thinking has already given rise to a new term, the “symphonic c-suite" - a team combining CEOs, CFOs (Chief Financial Officers), COOs (Chief Operating Officers), and others to harmonious effect. Think of it as teams leading teams.

Why is leadership and collaboration so important?

Collaborative leadership makes business sense. Here’s why.

  • Breaking down silos

    Think about the ‘TEAM’ acronym – Together Everyone Achieves More. Collaborative environments prove this mantra true. With the right leaders at the helm, people feel comfortable sharing their points of view. And this can lead to better outcomes.

  • Boosting creativity

    When ideas from different departments are flowing, people are also more likely to disagree with each other. In the collaborative model, that can be a good thing. If teams can manage difficult conversations respectfully, the resulting creative tension can often result in some of the best solutions.

  • Empowering employees

    Giving a cross-functional team the chance to work together benefits everyone involved. Individuals feel empowered when making key decisions and more confident as they’re encouraged to think creatively and solve problems.

  • Boosting engagement

    According to Gallup, engaged teams are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than disengaged teams. One way to boost engagement is to give your co-workers a sense of ownership in their tasks. Collaborative leaders let employees have their say when deciding their aims and goals, meaning they become more invested in their work and the process.

    The best managers will go even further, giving individual team members their time and attention and rewarding their efforts. The result is a more motivated workforce.

  • Building trust across hybrid teams

    As workforces become increasingly scattered between office, frontline or remote working locations, collaborative leaders play an essential role in building trust. When people see others welcoming a wide range of perspectives, they can feel more confident their contributions will be well received, no matter what their location. There’s never been a greater need to make everyone feel included, as 82% of company leaders plan to allow employees to work some of the time remotely.

  • Fast-tracking staff development

    Our Deskless Not Voiceless 2020 Report found that only 41% of frontline managers think their bosses nurture their careers. It seems likely this number would be higher in a collaborative environment filled with opportunities to learn from subject experts in different departments. Development opportunities don’t stop there, especially in teams where staff are encouraged to make decisions for themselves and develop the confidence to lead others.

What are the challenges of collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leadership isn’t always an easy path. There are a number of pitfalls to prepare for.

  1. Lack of enthusiasm

    You’ll need to keep your team motivated when implementing new collaborative processes. People may start to lose interest further down the line, too. This could be down to employees losing focus on the bigger picture, feeling their efforts aren’t rewarded, or simply burnout. Being upbeat, celebrating successes and making sure workloads are manageable should help keep the team on board for the long run.

  2. Slow decision making

    With so many opinions to consider and priorities to meet, collaborative leadership can mean slower decision-making. In a collaborative environment, organizations should give their employees the tools they need to make group decisions as efficiently as possible. Solving the problem could be as simple as using communication tools that allow collaboration in real-time.

  3. Loss of control

    When collaborative leaders break teams out of their silos and abandon a traditional chain of command, there’s a danger that standards can slip. The potential for personalities to clash and deadlines to go whooshing by means there’s a delicate balance between loosening control and losing control. Rather than taking an authoritarian approach, collaborative leaders need to learn to influence others at the right time so that standards remain high.

  4. Lack of accountability

    It’s easier for people to feel less responsible for their work when they share it with others. Employees may grow distant from a task when decisions appear to serve one department more than another. To keep accountability high, find ways to give team members a strong sense of ownership throughout the whole process. This starts when the group sets its own goals, and if needed, these goals can adapt along the way to reflect everyone’s priorities.

  5. Potential for conflict

    There are bound to be differences in opinion in any situation involving different personalities. Groups should try to resolve any issues by focusing on their common goal. Keeping the group’s broader aims in mind will help mediate any difficult conversations and keep those creative egos in check.

How to implement collaborative leadership

Introducing collaborative processes is no small feat. There are a few strategies managers can use to improve their chances of success.

To encourage people to share their boldest ideas, they need to trust that the team will treat them with respect. When projects kick-off, design some ice-breaker sessions and activities to help break down silos and encourage people on the ‘edges’ of the business to come forward with their suggestions.

Leaders have to lead. Set the example by encouraging fairness and influence others to do the same. By being transparent in your decision-making and showing vulnerability at the right time, leaders can give people the confidence they can add value to a team.

Collaboration works best when it embraces diversity and when teams harness different perspectives to achieve the common goal. Keeping your shared purpose top of mind will keep everyone focused and make your results more impactful.

What defines a collaborative leadership style?

Collaborative leaders will usually have a combination of the following qualities.

Curiosity

It isn’t enough for a leader to sit back and let their co-workers take the reins. By making constructive inquiries, managers can inspire their colleagues to do the same. With more people asking the right questions, everyone benefits.

Collaborative leaders show a keen interest in the finer details of a business. Their smart questions can help a group understand the task ahead of them and spark conversations that lead to new solutions and better strategies.

Open-mindedness

Leaders have to be willing to listen and learn from other people’s perspectives to make the most of a diverse group. Giving team members from different functions and levels of the business the opportunity to work together will probably unearth a few surprises. The best leaders aren’t intimidated by this new information but often choose to run with it. This usually involves asking more team members for their perspectives and asking the group for suggestions on solving problems.

Respect for others

Treating coworkers with respect can help build an open and honest working environment. For collaborative leaders, this means taking the time to listen to everyone. A reputation for acting on people’s concerns and being fair also encourages a sense of trust. With trust, the whole team can feel confident about sharing their ideas without the fear of being judged.

Knowledge of when to step back and when to take charge

Collaborative leaders need to recognize their weaknesses as much as their strengths. By taking a back seat at the right time, they’ll allow team members to bring their skills and knowledge to the fore.

Of course, not everything should be down to the wider team. The most capable managers offer their expertise at the correct time to support their co-workers.

Just as they make their departments work with each other, leaders make sure they're always in a position to work with their people.

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