Do top-down hierarchies still work in businesses? Or do leaders today need to find a different approach that best serves their companies and people? Research determining how group members interact when there’s a threat or rival says collaborative leadership is a better choice than traditional business structures designed to demonstrate power, authority, and control. In contrast to egalitarian teams, top-down structures seem to hurt team dynamics. Additionally, they create a worse perception of the group’s performance. Lindred Greer, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, explains, “When you look at real organizations, having a clear hierarchy within your firm actually makes people turn on each other when they face an outside threat . . . Effective teamwork against threats requires not hierarchy, but egalitarianism. . .”
In addition to this, the most prominent generation in the U.S. workforce—millennials—want changes in how organizations operate. As Google’s former Head of People Lazlo Bock says, “Over the coming decades, the most gifted, hardest working people on the planet will gravitate to places where they can do meaningful work and help shape the destiny of organizations.” Millennials understand their impact ties in with their ability to operate as leaders within their company. In top-down structures full of red tape caused by traditional power structures, it’s almost impossible to become an ideal team player and drive real change. This is debilitating for those who are self-motivated and seek fulfillment and meaning at work.
To avoid these problems, consider implementing collaborative leadership into your organizational structure. This way of guiding a business builds leaders at all levels and allows the team a more participatory role in shaping the company’s future. Find out more below about the collaborative management style, its benefits, and how to begin practicing it.
What is Collaborative Leadership?
Collaborative leadership is the distribution of power and influence starting at an executive level. However, this way of leading affects the entire company. With collaborative leadership, teams are more synergetic and communicative. They also understand how they can work together to produce optimal results.
Collaborative leaders encourage participation, group decision making, and the expression of thoughts, feelings, and ideas. They create a safe environment for their leadership team to openly communicate and reach conclusions about the direction of the company. Ultimately, collaborative leaders work to instill a sense of unity, camaraderie, collectiveness, and team spirit among group members.
Why Collaborative Leadership is Becoming Popular
New ideas are emerging about what effective leadership looks like. From Situational Leadership® to shared leadership, there are various ways to lead that prevent leaders from becoming one-dimensional. In today’s business world, a singular person having full command and control over a company isn’t feasible. With that being said, collaborative leadership is a great option that allows executives and others on the leadership team to play to their strengths. Doing so optimizes the talent on the team, which ultimately drives the success of the company.
In addition to this, it also changes the dynamic of the company culture. This leadership style isn’t only used when interacting with other top-level executives. It’s a foundational way of guiding cross-functional teams throughout the business. For example, a CEO might teach their direct report how to be a collaborative leader. This person can take what they learned and practice collaborative leadership with the team they guide. Leaders from this group can do the same until it reaches and influences employees at every level in the business. When implemented correctly, the collaborative leadership style directly positively affects every single person in an organization.
Other benefits of the collaborative management style include:
- An increase of creativity and innovative ideas
- Better conditions for open communication among leaders and workers
- Higher levels of employee engagement, performance, and productivity
- A stronger team that operates with the mentality of tackling challenges and problems together
- Employees becoming more “accepting of organizational rules and their perceived organizational performance”
- Creating leaders at every level who are capable of working together in a productive, motivating way
- More opportunities to listen to and include diverse thoughts, feelings, and beliefs before reaching a decision that affects team members
- Keeping the human connection element alive in technology-driven companies
How to Practice Collaborative Leadership
Do you feel like your team and company could benefit from you becoming a collaborative leader? From guiding your team through the decision making process, using a more democratic leadership style, or learning how to communicate more openly and inclusively, there are many ways executives can begin this journey. Find out more about stepping into collaborative leadership below.
1. Model Businesses That Successfully Use Collaborative Leadership
Grasping the concept of collaborative leadership is one thing—practicing yourself is another. Because of this, learning from a collaborative leader is one of the best ways to become one yourself. One example of the way leaders at Sequoia Consulting interact with each other effectively is by creating a user guide for themselves. In essence, this manual describes to others how to get the best use out of them. Kaleana Quibell, the company’s well-being director, tells Culture Amp, “When you know how a colleague you’re collaborating with operates, you become more efficient, more productive, and your trust in others improves.”
To find other collaborative leaders and learn from them:
- Use a social networking site like LinkedIn to join collaborative leadership groups to meet people who practice this leadership style.
- Search posts using the words “collaborative leadership” to find more examples of leaders to model.
- Reach out and send them a message asking to discuss what they’ve learned and the best tips they have to offer as you step into this new way of leading.
2. Visualize Collaboration at Your Company
Implementing collaborative leadership with minimal mistakes and errors requires serious thought from leaders. When leading more democratically, it’s important to remember that you must navigate various differing personalities, opinions, beliefs, ideas, and concerns. In short, harmony among the team isn’t always a given. To avoid conflict, consider what collaboration looks like in your business, when to use it, what potential roadblocks could pop up, how to resolve them, and what steps need to be taken to create a culture of togetherness. To prepare for these situations and develop a plan for times of conflict, make visualization a daily habit.
When practicing visualization:
- Think about what the team is currently doing right to collaborate. Visualize ways to lean into this even more.
- Imagine the group collaborating during a strategic meeting, brainstorming session, or any other situation where a decision must be made. How do you guide the team? Which conflict resolution skills will you use if group members get stressed, heated, or upset?
- Form a mental portrait of times the group could have collaborated better for a more positive outcome? What would you have done differently? How can you make these changes moving forward?
3. Start With Why
Collaborative leadership isn’t a free-for-all in terms of decision making, problem solving, and leading the company. There does need to be a visionary on the team who leads everyone by communicating the company’s purpose. Teams need to understand why the business exists and what vision of a better future they’re working toward. CEOs and founders must step up and communicate their inspiring, clear vision, so the team has a guiding force—a force that spreads throughout the company in real-time through its various leaders. Without defining the company’s “why” first, it’s almost impossible to collaborate successfully because there’s no collective objective.
Once a leader communicates the business’s “why,” they can begin working on the business’s “how” with their team. Ultimately, this is the purpose of collaborative leadership—sharing responsibility for how a company reaches the leader’s vision. Once a leadership team understands the CEO’s “why,” they can figure out a strategy for making this a reality. At this point, executive leaders should shift into guiding the team using group decision making and democratic leadership.
Learn more about guiding your team through group decision-making.
4. Ensure Teams Have the Tools Needed to Collaborate
Undoubtedly, less face-to-face interaction presents new challenges for employers. Research from Upwork estimates 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely by 2025—double the number of people who said they worked from home in 2020. With these numbers in mind, leaders need to think about what tools they should provide that keep collaboration a top priority.
Fortunately, many business apps, project management platforms, and communication tools ensure teams can remain interconnected and effective. For instance, Slack, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams are all great for staying in touch with one another on a daily basis. Whether sharing files for a project you’re working on together or asking a quick question to see how another team member feels about a specific change, tools like these keep collaboration alive.
At project management software company Hive, CEO John Furneaux says regular group meetings using digital tools are vital to keeping team collaboration in check. “The most important keys to remote work at a startup have been weekly stand-ups. At Hive, we all get on Zoom once a week to chat and give shoutouts to the team. We also have regular 1:1s with video on. Having your video on totally changes the tone of a meeting . . . ,” he explains in an article for the company’s blog.
5. Normalize Asking for Help and Relying on Others
For collaborative leadership to work, leaders must create an environment where team members feel open to sharing their ideas, beliefs, feelings, emotions, and concerns without the fear of judgment and shame. The first step in doing this is becoming an active, empathetic listener who asks questions and shows genuine interest in what your team has to say. Recognizing employees and showing appreciation and gratitude for their participation is one way to build a trusting team culture grounded upon open communication.
In business cultures where communication is closed off, no one feels safe to ask for help. Truthfully, many of your employees likely have bad experiences from their past jobs that might make them feel guarded when expressing how they feel or what they think. As a leader, you’ll need to step up and set the tone for how the team will interact with each other so they can effectively collaborate.
To be a good example:
- Be open about asking your team for help.
- Tell them why you need it. For instance, you might practice strengths-based leadership to recognize and pinpoint each individual on your team’s talents and gifts. Let them know what these are, and play them to it when you or the group company face challenges.
- Meet with your leadership team and direct reports regularly (one-on-one and in a group). This will help you understand their top qualities and how they can best serve the group when collaborating.
6. Grow Yourself to Be a Collaborative Leader
Without growing and developing as a leader, you won’t be able to effectively step into this leadership style, as collaboration requires a number of leadership skills. For example, a collaborative leader needs to know how to diffuse conflict, be an emotionally intelligent communicator and listener, hold themselves and others accountable, and inspire, motivate, and influence those within the group. The best way to do this is to take on a growth mindset and make pursuing knowledge an everyday habit. Whether you listen to business podcasts, read leadership books, study the various leadership styles, take online courses, or meet with mentors, you should be doing something every day to grow as a leader. Those who avoid self-development cannot expect group development.
Why Collaborative Leadership Matters
Steve Jobs is an excellent example of a leader who understood the value of using this leadership style to change the world. In an interview, he expressed collaboration was a crucial factor in Apple’s ability to drive impact. “One of the keys to Apple is Apple’s an incredibly collaborative company . . . We all meet for three hours once a week, and we talk about everything we’re doing—the whole business. There’s tremendous teamwork at the top of the company, which filters down to tremendous teamwork throughout the company . . . If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win. Otherwise, good people don’t stay,” he tells the interviewer.
Teamwork is collaborative leadership, and without teamwork, companies fail. When a CEO or founder is more concerned with being right all the time, delving out KPIs, and having complete control and authority, they’ll quickly find themselves facing a war alone. Their team will desert them, one by one, until there is no one left to help them fulfill their vision. It goes without saying any vision worth pursuing cannot be fulfilled alone. In order to experience and maintain success, leaders must foster personal connections, inspire their team, and use each individual’s strengths when collaborating to produce results that best benefit customers and the company at large.
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