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What the collaborative leadership style is—and why it works

as the result of collaborative leadership style two team members doing fist bump for having reached their goal

Why the collaborative leadership style works 

In order to be an effective leader, it’s important to adjust your leadership style to the needs of your team or organization. 

In the last decade, and especially since the pandemic, more and more employees prefer working in a collaborative environment, rather than a hierarchical setting where they have little to no input. A Deloitte study shows 51% of employees rate C-suite collaboration as very important. 

Not only do employees prefer a collaborative approach, but it can also be better for a business’ bottom line. In the same Deloitte study, organizations with the highest levels of cross-collaboration from the C-suite level were anticipated to grow by 10% or more.  

So, how can you become a more collaborative leader and encourage your employees to do the same?

We break down what collaborative leadership looks like, how to encourage increased collaboration among your employees, and the additional benefits this leadership style can bring to you, your team, and your entire company.

What is a collaborative leadership style?

The heart of the collaborative leadership style is right there in the name: collaborative.

With the collaborative leadership style, leaders from across the business come together to solve business problems, rather than leading their individual teams from their own silos. Responsibility and information are shared among multiple leaders and no one team or individual “owns” a project. With collaboration, it’s always a “we” and never a “me.”

Collaborative leaders often seek out different perspectives from their employees, peers, and higher-level leaders to have a full understanding of issues and possible solutions. Hierarchy isn’t important to a collaborative leader, and employees from all levels are welcome to share their ideas, offer feedback, or jump in to help on a project.

Once a problem or opportunity is identified, leaders come together to define the mission of the project and share one, clear objective that every team can work toward in conjunction with one another.

What is the difference between a collaborative leader and a traditional leader?

If you are a traditional leader, you might be more comfortable taking directions from the top and assigning tasks to your own employees. Traditional leaders are responsible for finding solutions to issues and look to specific team members to carry out those solutions.

To put it simply, traditional leaders prefer structure and dedicated roles and responsibilities to get the work done.

A collaborative leader, on the other hand, prefers to work with a variety of people to brainstorm new ideas and work on projects together. This type of leader is much more team-oriented and encourages their employees to voice concerns or ideas freely.

The benefits of collaborative leadership

Multiple studies and surveys have shown that collaborative leadership leads to higher engagement, better results, and overall higher satisfaction among team members. Employees like to be part of decision making and other leaders appreciate when their peers from other departments want to work together instead of staying siloed in their own business unit.

Collaboration can also affect daily tasks and have a significant impact on employee morale and performance. In fact, when collaboration fails in a business, employee engagement overall suffers. When cross-functional projects are organized and set with clear direction, work can be accomplished without too many headaches.

Additionally, collaborative leadership helps foster a more inclusive environment and a positive company culture. By seeking out other feedback and insights, employees feel heard and know that their opinions are valued. Collaboration can also ensure information is shared equally among teams and no one team or person can hoard all of the information. All of this leads to a more authentic supervisor-employee relationship and can increase trust within the team.

Another benefit of leading with collaboration is the sense of unity that is created among leaders. Collaboration makes all sides of the business feel heard and there’s no one department that is more important than the other. When leaders work together on company initiatives, the company’s direction is more focused, and organizational decisions can be made faster following the clear focus set from the top.

How do you demonstrate collaborative leadership?

1. Start with where you want to end up

In order for collaboration to be effective, everyone needs to know (and agree on) what the vision of the project or work is.

It’s helpful to take a step back from the weeds and hustle and bustle of your day-to-day duties and ask yourself, “What are the big issues that our company needs to address or that could push us to greater success?” Ask other people this question to see if you both have similar ideas on what needs to change.

This “outside-in” thought process will help you and other employees or leaders identify the full scope of a problem or opportunity. From there, you can create a shared goal and articulate a clear vision of what work needs to be done to your respective teams.

2. Keep communication open

Strong communication skills are critical for collaborating well with others. If new developments pop up on projects you’re working on, update your business partners and other leaders who you may not regularly work with, but who would benefit from being kept in the loop.

Good communication can make for more productive collaboration, too. When meeting with others, be sure to clearly state the purpose of your meeting, what you hope to accomplish, and how you think the attendees can help.

For example, if you’d like to bring different business functions together for a brainstorming session, be sure to explain what type of ideas you’re looking for and ask people to bring two to three suggestions to the meeting. Then, take notes on what was discussed during that time and share with all invited employees—whether or not they attended—so everyone is kept in the loop of what came out of the meeting.

3. Go outside your comfort zone

It’s critical that you reach out to other teams or departments that you may not be as familiar with in order to truly be a collaborative leader. Often, people will choose to collaborate with teams that they know or like, and while this still can be useful, it can also curb potential innovation or prevent other issues from being brought to light. A diverse set of opinions is key for a collaborative approach to succeed.

In addition, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer or need help with a problem. Great leaders are ones who can be vulnerable with their teams or business partners and ask for help when they need it.

4. Encourage collaboration among your employees and coworkers

You don’t have to be a manager or supervisor to practice collaborative leadership. If leaders model the collaborative leadership style by working closely with other leaders and teams, employees will also feel empowered to collaborate with each other and outside teams.

Offer to help or work closely with your peers on projects, not only the ones you are directly assigned, but work that your coworkers are responsible for. This will foster a culture of teamwork in your organization, so everyone feels empowered to ask for help and is eager to assist others.

To continue spreading the collaborative approach, bring up other partners across the business who might bring a helpful perspective to the work your coworkers or employees are doing. Referrals can do wonders for a business, and they can really help in getting work done with the right minds in the room. Use your network to find individuals who can help one another and make an introduction.

Potential issues with a collaborative approach

Like any leadership style, there are bound to be some drawbacks with collaborative leadership. These issues are good to keep in mind if you implement a collaborative approach, so you can avoid falling into habits or patterns that bring out the worst of collaboration.

1. Employees spend too much time in meetings, but not enough time actually working

Most people can agree that workers don’t need more meetings on their calendars. Research has shown that executives spend more than 20 hours a week in meetings, and many employees say they don’t have enough time in the week to actually do the work needed.

While collaboration is a valuable way of working and innovating, be sure it doesn’t take so much time away that people can’t do their jobs.

Avoid having a meeting just for the sake of having a meeting. Collaboration can be done in other ways, via email or an async communication platform like Slack. These tools can set you up to collaborate outside of a conference room and make your meeting time together more efficient and focused on work that is best done with multiple people together.  

2. Many opinions can make it difficult to make a decision

One of the toughest areas to navigate when working with multiple people is having too many voices. That makes it hard to come to a consensus.

Collaboration only works if employees are willing to compromise and find common ground. Try to find only one person for each perspective so you’re not stuck managing too many opinions, and see what compromises can be made so everyone is satisfied with the end result.

In addition, collaboration with multiple people increases the chances of distractions or going down a rabbit hole that takes the group off task. It’s key that meeting organizers keep attendees focused and redirect attention to the group’s purpose.  

A collaborative leadership approach makes room for innovation

Collaboration brings new ideas and can inspire new ways of working for employees. While collaboration can also slow processes down, it’s been proven multiple times to be an engaging (and profitable) way of leading an organization. Employees will appreciate that their ideas are valued and considered, and you may just find solutions that you would’ve never thought of on your own.

Navigating a new leadership style can be uncomfortable at first, but personal coaching can help you develop the necessary leadership skills so you can tackle the process like a pro. We recommend working with a coach to develop your collaboration and big-picture thinking skills so you can lead your team to discover even more innovative solutions.

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