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What is collaborative leadership?
Illustration by Tiffany Tsai

4 min read

What is collaborative leadership?

People are over traditional top-down hierarchies in the workplace. The future is all about collaborative leadership.

The way we work is rapidly changing: remote work has led to more distributed teams; increased access to information has changed how we consume data; and cross-functional collaboration is breaking down traditional divides between departments, teams, and even skill sets. In short, workplaces are increasingly more dynamic, connected, and collaborative.

As the nature of work evolves, so is the way in which organizations are structured. For many, the traditional top-down hierarchical structure is no longer considered the most efficient or preferred way of working, especially among millennials who make up 50% of the workforce.

As a result, new and experimental org structures, including self-managed teams, are cropping up at some of the most well known companies in the world. While some companies strive to do away with traditional leaders entirely, others are experimenting with a management practice called collaborative leadership.

What is collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leadership is a way of managing people across functional and organizational boundaries. In collaborative working environments, managers aren’t simply there to oversee projects and make sure goals are met; rather, they work alongside employees and in collaboration with other teams and departments to accomplish shared goals. This can mean a few things, depending on the organization:

  • Information is shared freely, across all levels of the organization
  • Teams are cross-functional and interdisciplinary
  • Each employee is given a voice and a way to contribute to the success of the organization
  • Decisions are made as a team, either through consensus or co-creation
  • Leaders bridge gaps between departments and play a major role in preventing silos

Unlike a traditional top-down org structure, where information is often hoarded among the upper echelons of the organization, collaborative leadership encourages a more open culture. Each employee understands what’s happening in other departments, recognizes the shared purpose of their organization, and sees how their role fits into that overarching purpose. In this structure, it's the role of leaders to facilitate collaborative relationships between departments.

What does collaborative leadership look like?

Implementing collaborative leadership isn’t easy, especially for leaders who may be used to old school org structures (and the level of authority that comes with that). First and foremost, it requires being open to new ideas and outside opinions. This means giving each employee across the organization the chance to meaningfully contribute to projects that might be outside of their area of expertise or unrelated to their daily responsibilities.

That's great, but what does that look like and how does it work in practice?

1. Open organizations

In promoting openness, leaders create an inclusive, transparent workplace with a strong shared sense of purpose and a more cohesive organizational culture.

Practically, this means providing open communication channels in which people can freely share information with each other: what they’re working on, challenges they’re encountering, a place to brainstorm and offer feedback, you name it.

Open organizations typically rely on some kind of collaboration software to keep people connected, and collaborative leaders will play an active role in sustaining those channels—not just in an administrative sense, but as a way of leading by example.

2. Empowered people

Andy Doyle, former Head of Operations at Medium, writes that a self-management structure “aspires to empower individual voices and avoid the bureaucracy that often accompanies traditional organizational structures.” This is absolutely critical for any collaborative environment, self-managed or not.

Empowering people is all about understanding how each piece of the puzzle fits into the bigger picture, and communicating that. It requires knowing what people excel at, how they can assist on certain types of projects, and trusting them to do so with limited guidance.

Teams that are comprised of many different perspectives and skill sets are especially well equipped to tackle large scale challenges and important projects. So as a leader you'll want to stand back and let them unleash their true potential.

3. Collaboration skills

In collaborative working environments, leaders take on a less directive and more participatory role. They may play a part in assembling a project team, but aren’t necessarily the owner of that particular project. Instead, they’re there to lend their perspective, take on some of the workload, and encourage an org-wide style of collaboration.

Thus, the primary role of collaborative leaders is to help people get better at collaborating with each other. Collaboration is a process, after all, but it also requires a set of skills to be honed over time. It’s up to leaders to help their teams develop the skills necessary to collaborate well.

In practice this means providing space for all types of communication and communicators. It means helping people improve their organization skills. It means helping people become effective debaters, and mediating discussions with competing voices or ideas.

It also means anticipating how collaboration might break down, and taking action to prevent it before it happens.

The benefits of collaborative leadership

There are too many to list here, but a few advantages to this kind of org structure and management practice are as follows:

  • A shared sense of your organization’s purpose
  • Closer teams who understand how their work intersects with and influences other teams across the organization
  • A more interconnected, up-to-date, and engaged workforce
  • An org-wide sense that leaders trust their people to do great work
  • Increased employee loyalty
  • Development of future collaborative leaders

Conclusion

In the end, collaborative leadership is all about flattening and opening up an organization—to new ideas, perspectives, skill sets, and a greater awareness of what’s working and what isn’t. It's not necessarily an outright rejection of traditional org structures, either. Think of collaborative leadership as an upgraded version that reflects the way people work nowadays.

Want to improve your collaborative leadership skills?Watch our webinar

Read more by
Corey Moseley

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