Industry Insights

What is a Collaborative Leadership Style & How to Apply it

Posted by Gyzel Pialat on Jan 23, 2020 4:03:52 PM

It might be all coming to a dramatic end for top-down hierarchies in the workplace. Management, take a hike, the future has Collaborative Leadership written all over it.

The times are changing, but why?

The way we work is going through a global upheaval of sorts. Automation has threatened job security, the internet has dispersed information and data in unexpected ways, and remote work opportunities have led to distributed teams doing their work on the beach (amongst other more logical places). Collaboration is blossoming, the upper echelons of management fear their pre-installed divisions, and we are all here to witness bold and beautiful partnerships forge between different departments, teams, ideologies, and skill sets. 

Everything is dynamic and constantly evolving, much faster than traditional organizations will admit that they can handle. Self-managed teams, multi-disciplined individuals, innovative millennial minds, and other types of non-traditional professionals are making sure that the collaborative leadership style comes into the foray. 

Goodbye bosses, hello collaborative leaders…

So, let’s start by explaining what the collaborative leadership style is. In this style of leadership, results are driven by teams that are working seamlessly across real and imagined boundaries, internally, externally, and organizationally. A collaborative leader does many things, like handling conflict in a way that makes progress, distributing control fairly, and building solid lasting relationships. There’s no bossing around to be found here. 

Be a Connector or a Bridge!

Cast your mind to someone in your network who is absolutely gifted at networking, who is great at bringing people together, and who seems to know just about everybody in some way or another. What is remarkable about these people is not that they know a lot of people, but rather that they have a mental memory bank of people, resources, ideas, businesses, experiences, and more all spark to life when their skills are needed. These people are crucial to making collaborative leadership work, and while you might not be this extroverted people-person we’ve described, you should do your best to identify them in your organisation.

When you know who the bridge person is, it’s important to make yourself known and available to them for the benefit of the organisation. When a project pops up, they’ll think of you, and your experience, if they have a clear picture of it. When there’s a problem in an organisation, these connector people are the closest to solving it, as they know exactly who holds the key. Alternatively, when an opportunity arises, nobody is better placed to put together a team and a strategy than the collaborative leader who understands what skills and resources are available.

Collaborative leaders will also look outside of their business to add quality individuals, external organisations, and quality resources to their network. They will go beyond customers, suppliers, and leads, and look to network in other industries, key locations, expansion cities, and industry associations. They will embrace all sorts of different backgrounds, regardless of age, race, culture, or disability.

Let’s move on and explore what sets collaborative-minded leaders apart...

What's the difference between a collaborative leader and a traditional leader?


Collaborative leaders will…

  • Gain power from the collective intelligence and creativity and take the best ideas from the group in order to solve problems and make plans
  • Make information open-source and sharable, helping everyone find opportunities to develop and support one another
  • Give everyone a voice and welcome suggestions and ideas, even hosting workshops that allow for brainstorming and unique insights to come to fruition
  • Build trust and ensure that resources (time, money, and materials) are given out where they are needed most to make sure that people can do their jobs efficiently
  • Work together to set some housekeeping rules to make sure there is general order, but will allow for roles and permissions to evolve and change in the name of progress
  • Look for the root causes of any problems and try to solve them there, rather than offering short term or meaningless solutions
  • Make sure that everyone feels that they’re on a level playing field, and that typical performance reviews are not necessary as long as deserved praise, warranted criticism, and sufficient education are used instead

Traditional leaders will...

  • Be the singular source of authority, often earning this position based on how long they’ve been with the company
  • Horde information that they believe will help them assert authority
  • Generate ideas in boardroom meetings at the highest level in most instances. Employees must book meetings and permission must be made in order to make suggestions. Ideas are kept under wraps until they’re ready to be to turned into instructions
  • Monitor resources heavily and without a great deal of trust, putting an added anxiety or pressure on projects
  • Enforce outdated policies and regulations that employees must adhere to. Managers are often hired as enforcers of these rules
  • Show little leniency towards employee issues, dealing with them in a reactive rather than proactive way
  • Give performance reviews that are in line with the corporate policy, rather than giving a human account of productivity, error, and good work

Now we can spot the difference, how do we apply the collaborative leadership to business

For any would-be collaborative leader reading this article, the sum of all the parts of this leadership style can be boiled down to five skills.

  1. Engaging personality - Networking and relationship building are fundamental, so if you’re not a people person, you’re going to have to learn to be one. Communicate clearly, diffuse stressful situations, and involve other people in decisions and processes.
  2. Influential instinct - You’ll need to understand your teams and the culture of the organisation better than anyone else so that you can follow your instinct about what is right, and share control over how to deliver it.
  3. Buckets of patience - Collaborative leaders are not born overnight, they grow into the role over time through consistent positive behaviour, such as being calm and reflective, encouraging, supportive, and inspiring confidence in others. To rush is to panic, and that is not a sign of a true leader.
  4. Constructive criticism - Some people don’t like to hear negative things about themselves, so collaborative leaders must squash issues quickly and constructively, delivering ‘hard truth sandwiches’ if they must. This skill is not optional, a strong mediator will always find success as a leader.
  5. A good heart - Listen, do not be judgemental, open your mind, be self-aware, and accept the opinions and perspectives of others. Fail to do this, and you will be falling into the trap of traditional leadership!


Do you have the makings of a collaborative leader already?

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you address a situation head-on and respectfully, or do you use passive aggression and sarcasm?
  2. Do you do what you say you are going to do, or are you seen as flaky and unreliable?
  3. Do you prefer transparency over secrecy?
  4. Are you willing to make hard decisions, be accountable for their outcomes, and do their outcomes pose a threat to you?
  5. Do you see resources as tools to get things moving forward, or do they belong to departments and rigid budgets?
  6. How are you going to reward and incentivise position contribution to stop your team members from hiding at the back?
  7. Are you a storyteller who shares constructive experiences from meetings, travels, and the people who meet outside your organization?
  8. Do you encourage people to have joint responsibilities rather than individual goals?
  9. Do you set targets and benchmarks for learning and development as well as KPIs?
  10. Can you get behind an idea that you might not necessarily agree with if you’ve been outvoted or outdebated?

The difference between an average collaborative leader and a GREAT one!

An average collaborative leader puts teams together and forces them to collaborate on absolutely everything, overlooking their individual talents in pursuit of the collaborative ideology. This results in time wastage, pointless meetings, debates, and struggles to execute a plan effectively. Being too collaborative is just as big a problem as not collaborating enough.

When we talk about GREAT collaborative leaders, we talk about those who are amazing at composing and directing teams, putting the teams together and pulling them apart in order to be as dynamic and responsive to opportunities and problem solving as possible. For the best collaborative leaders, everything is a project, and everything should be fluid. Decisions are made clearly, responsibilities are assigned, and disputes are solved quickly. Idea generation is encouraged, with the team itself urged by the collaborative leader to take some initiative.

Upskilling and Culture Training Is Vital for the Future of Leadership

Now that you’ve seen what a collaborative leader does, how you can recognise the skills in yourself, and what sets these leaders apart, now let’s discuss why the culture of collaborative leadership is crucial, and why the organisation is more important than the individual leader.

Embracing a collaborative leadership culture brings a range of benefits, encouraging the staff to drive higher productivity, bring teams closer together, increase dynamic responsive behaviour, and leave everyone feeling empowered.

The problem for organisations is that skills get outdated, complacency creeps in, and that what worked in the past might not always work in the future. Technology changes, tools and software upgrades, and mindsets alter. To solve all of these issues, a collaborative leader or an organisation with this CL approach will see upskilling and culture training/change as a vital aspect of futureproofing the business.

A few final words about collaborative leadership…

The collaborative leadership style will be welcomed into the offices and premises of forward-thinking businesses before you know it. The top-down hierarchical approach is headed for early retirement. Businesses, companies, and communities don’t want authoritarians, they want to be led, inspired and engaged while looking at one another, rather than looking up.

If you found this article useful, make sure to read our article on expert insights for leadership and collaboration or download our latest white paper.

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Topics: Leadership Development, Interactive

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