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Why collaborative leadership is replacing top-down management

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

November 25, 2020

The way we work is constantly evolving. That includes the cubicle farms of the ‘60s to open-plan offices, coworking spaces, and remote teams… Work will always reflect the values of the majority, and Millennials (24- to 38-year-olds), who make up 50% of the workforce, want greater flexibility, collaboration, and transparency.

Reflecting these values, workplaces are becoming more collaborative and dynamic. Traditional top-down managerial structures for leadership are being replaced with bottom-up styles of working. Meanwhile, some of the world’s most progressive companies are trying out more experimental routes, including self-managed teams and collaborative leadership — a new leadership style that’s all about breaking down traditional workplace divides.

Organizations need to be dynamic if they want to attract and retain the best workers — and collaborative leadership is one way to do that. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leadership is all about breaking down barriers so that everyone in the organization — from the CEO to the intern — can work together. You share information openly across the business, and everyone collaborates as one big team.

Rather than managers just overseeing projects, they actually roll up their sleeves and dig into the work. Similarly, staff don’t just do the work: They have a say in how projects and even the company is run.

Collaborative leadership encourages transparency, with the goal of fostering a sense of shared purpose. It’s essentially a bottom-up style of working, which differs from the more traditional ‘top-down’ method where a small group of managers at the top trickle select bits of information down to everyone else. Here are some key features:

  • Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to the organization’s success
  • Decisions are made through consensus
  • Information is shared openly across all levels
  • Teams are cross-functional and interdisciplinary
  • Leaders focus on helping collaboration and preventing silos

What are the benefits of collaborative leadership?

Imagine trying to complete a puzzle with three other people, and you each only had a quarter of the image to guide you. The risk of making a mistake is much higher than if you’d all been working from one, full picture. This is what collaborative leadership is all about: making sure everyone has the full picture,

Here are some of the key benefits:

  • A shared sense of purpose
  • A more engaged, connected workforce
  • Employees who understand how their work intersects with other teams across the organization
  • A more open and honest workplace where ideas are shared, and views are discussed
  • A culture that promotes and develops leadership qualities in everyone
  • Greater flow of information, resulting in more informed decision-making and solutions

How to build a culture of collaborative leadership

Organizational change is never easy, but with a clear sense of purpose and the support of your team, you’ll be well on the way to a more collaborative way of working. Here’s how to get started.

1. Create a sense of purpose

To lead people toward a goal, you need a clear vision — and you need to communicate this clearly across the entire organization. In the past, workplaces often had different messages for different groups of people. That meant stakeholders had a different story from the graphic designers, and the accounts team had a different version again. When it comes to collaborative leadership, start in the same way you plan to continue and share the same vision with everyone — from senior management to the newest intern.

2. Make leaders approachable

As well as making sure everyone has access to the same information (with the exception of personal data), adopting a more collaborative leadership style also means talking to everyone in the same way.

The added benefit to this is that being open is also a great way to nurture trust. “CEOs don’t sit up in an Ivory Tower. You have to be a little bit more available, a little bit more human,” says David Solomon, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs.

3. Fine-tune your communication strategy

When it comes to collaborative leadership, it’s important to keep lines of communication open between all staff and departments. Besides breaking down silos, it’s also good for business. One study by the Holmes Report found that organizations with strong comms strategies gave their shareholders 47% higher returns. Plus, it improves staff wellbeing.

Good communication is so much more than just emails and occasional team catch-ups, though. It includes a whole range of best practices — from making sure everyone knows which channels to use to get their message across to how to actively listen and ask helpful questions.

There are lots of ways to promote it, from training and workshops to chat apps and project management tools. In fact, equipping your team with the right tech can mean more productive, more engaged employees. A study by McKinsey Global Institute revealed that productivity rose by as much as 25% when employees used online social tools to work together.

4. Be patient

When making any kind of organizational change — big or small — it’s often helpful to take small steps. Remember, the goal is to make things easier. If people feel like you’ve suddenly added too much to their workload, they’ll dig their heels in. Think small, manageable changes everyone can build on.

For example, if you’d like to get employees used to the idea of making decisions and sharing ideas, you could hold virtual brainstorming sessions or give teams more access to project data so they can see how their work fits into the bigger picture.

5. Build a culture of trust

Collaborative leadership is all about empowering everyone to lead. The best way to do that is to promote a culture of trust. As a manager, collaborating is an act of vulnerability: You’re essentially admitting you don’t know all the answers and that you trust your team to step up. Along with creating a safe, open space for employees to share thoughts, managers need to learn to truly step aside and use other people’s ideas — and not just pay lip service to it.

This is no easy task, but collaboration tools can make it easier for everyone. Project management software allows team members to work autonomously while the software keeps track of progress. Managers (and other team members) can then login and see at a glance how everyone’s communicating together. This means no more email update requests, no more micromanaging, and a stronger feeling of trust among everyone.

6. Clearly define roles

While it’s tempting to think collaborative leadership is a big free-for-all, the fact that leadership roles are less clearly defined means other roles need to be more defined. It’s important to make sure everyone knows what they’re responsible for and doing on a daily basis. You can minimize confusion or ambiguity.

Pro tip: Ask everyone to create a short bio and add it, along with a headshot, to your company website, wiki, or chat app. As for daily responsibilities, creating shared schedules everyone can access makes it easier for everyone to see who does what at any given time.

7. Make collaboration a priority

Collaborative leadership is about breaking down traditional barriers and encouraging new ways of thinking and working. It doesn’t mean leaders are ditched or that there’s no overarching decision-maker — it’s more about making it easier for ideas to flow from top to bottom and vice versa.

To have the best chance of success, make communication and collaboration a priority. You don’t need to do a full organizational overhaul: Embracing collaborative tools and making information freely available are small things that can have a big impact. When collaboration is happening naturally in the way individuals talk and work together, there’s no need for reporting or emails copying the boss in because everyone is on the same page, with all the information they need at their fingertips.



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