Learn How to be a Collaborative Leader

Seeing the words collaborative and leadership in the same sentence may seem like an oxymoron.

Those in leadership positions are often portrayed as commanders, decision-makers, rule-enforcers. They are “above” in the hierarchal ladder thus are more isolated from the team they are leading.

With their focus on the bird’s eye view, we tend to forget the most important piece: they are still a part of the team.  

A team is that much more limited in its success when individuals on the team aren’t involved in a collaborative effort—including the leader of the team.

This is why leadership team development is important. A big factor to develop your team is becoming a collaborative leader.

As teams get larger, more diverse, dispersed—remote—and specialized, being a manager overseeing tasks and responsibilities is not cutting it anymore.

A study by Harvard Business Review says managers and employees are spending up to 50 % more time performing collaborative activities over the past two years.

While there is much to applaud about this development, “when consumption of a valuable resource spikes that dramatically, it should also give us pause,” reads the article.

As a leader, you don’t want all your employees to be focusing on one task or project. I’m sure there are other aspects of your company that need attention.

But as a leader, you also don’t want to miss out on the potential you could be contributing to this collaborative effort.

More than that, you want to know how to offer adequate guided leadership to collaborative work.

If you’re mainly used to leading individuals, leading efforts in groups is your next challenge to focus on.

So, how can managers successfully practice collaborative leadership while maintaining the work structure and dynamics? How can you facilitate it without reverting back to becoming an oversized individual contributor again?

Well, leadership coaching programs could enhance your leadership skills. But, first, let’s define collaborative leadership and steps to achieve it.👇

What is Collaborative Leadership?

Collaborative leadership is the opposite of top-down management. A collaborative leadership style encourages different perspectives, shared responsibility, transparency to decision making, and access to information

Managers who practice collaborative leadership tend to build diverse teams with different viewpoints and experiences.

Regardless of the current leadership team development strategy, collaborative leaders are more prepared to foster psychological safety, empower employees in the company, encourage constructive dialogue, and use a collaborating style when conflict arises.

Why is Collaborative Leadership Important?

It is not a secret that startups benefit from different perspectives and employees who aren’t afraid to voice their opinions and challenge the status quo.

If employees are afraid, it leads to an unhealthy communication culture thus creating a homogenous leadership team and company culture—NOT what you aspire to cultivate.

Leadership is all about relationships.

Whether you’re trying to launch a new product, attract new employees or clients, or become a lead in your field, a collaborative setting is necessary.

Working together but remotely doesn’t have to affect your collaborative style.

Here are a few tips on how to nurture a collaborative team culture virtually at your startup.

Steps To Become a Collaborative Leader

Working remotely, social media and endless technologies have put connectivity on “steroids and made collaboration more integral to business than ever,” write Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen in a Harvard Business Review.

But without the right leadership, collaboration can go astray.

When employees try to collaborate on everything they may end up with endless meetings, struggling to reach agreement… spending endless hours and energy your team simply can’t afford.

On the other hand, managers who started in an age of “command and control” management can have trouble adjusting their style to fit the new realities of the workplace.

To find that sweet spot it may be worth considering leadership coaching programs as an option for your management team.

Leadership team development can help you achieve effective collaboration at your startup.

Ibarra and Hansen say that to be a collaborative leader, it requires connecting people and ideas, leveraging diverse talent, modeling collaborative behavior at the top, and showing a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate.

This is a tall order, but let’s break it down step by step.

Step 1: Play Global Connector

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell used the term “connector” to describe individuals who have many ties to different social worlds.

➡️ Collaborative leaders develop contacts not only in the typical areas—local restaurants, industry associations, clients and supplier relations—but beyond them.

It’s not the number of people you know that's significant; it’s the ability to link people, ideas, and resources that wouldn’t normally bump into one another.

In business, connectors are critical facilitators of collaboration.

To practice playing a global connector, aim to frequently set aside time to zoom out and take a bird’s eye view of your team members.

Can you identify opportunities by pairing team member’s strengths to reach a new goal or target? Or can you identify a development opportunity in one member who can learn from shadowing an “A-star performer” to better their skills?

These are just some of the ways you can play the global connector.

At its core, it requires you to also practice personalized leadership in understanding the very unique people that you lead, their talents, motivations, and goals and then strategically align them if the right opportunities exist. Good leadership coaching programs can help you learn this skill if it’s currently not part of your repertoire.

Step 2: Engage the Right Talent

Research has consistently shown that diverse teams produce better results, given they are well led, of course.

A leader’s ability to bring people together from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures, and generations and leverage all they have to offer is a must-have.

Yet, many companies spend hundreds of dollars and time attracting top talent to then exclude them from the hiring process because of a homogenizing funnel. Consider reinventing your recruitment process to check its biases and optimize it to attract the right talent for your organization

Step 3: Collaborate at the Top

As we mentioned above, too often we forget managers are also part of the team.

It’s not enough for you as a leader to preach collaborative opportunities in the team if you are not doing the same.

You must set the tone by being a good collaborator yourself.

Part of the problem is that many leadership teams, composed of the CEO and direct reports, actually don’t operate as teams. — Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen.

Each manager runs their own region or portfolio. Collaborating at the management level is also part of achieving an all encompassing vision and building high-performing teams.

No matter where you are in the leadership ladder, leadership coaching programs can help you learn, improve and grow in your role.

In doing so, you invite collaboration to happen at all levels of the organization.

Step 4: Be a Strong Hand But Don’t Over Do It

As mentioned above, when people try to collaborate, they tend to over do it. And this is the case for managers, too.

Effective collaborative leaders assume a strong role when directing teams in the right path. Collaboration is fluid and not confined to one solution only.

However, poorly led collaboration can lead to unresolved conflicts.

To learn how to use collaboration effectively in conflict, keep reading.

Collaboration in a Conflict Setting

A collaborating style in a conflict setting attempts to find a solution that will meet the needs of all parties. Rather than trying to find a middle ground solution, you would aim for a solution that actually satisfies everyone and ends up being a win-win situation. As a leader, using this method can improve leadership team development.

Benefits of collaborating:

  • High-quality decisions: Leads to seeking innovative solutions which are better than each person’s initial positions.
  • Learning and communication: Aids communication and discovery through open exchange of information.
  • Resolution and commitment: Leads to both people working toward understanding all concerns, translating into both parties committing to the final decision.
  • Strengthening relationships: Builds trust and respect by resolving problems in a relationship.

Costs of collaborating:

  • Time and energy required: Requires full concentration and creativity. It also requires more time to dig through issues than the other conflict styles.
  • Psychological demands: It can be psychologically demanding as both parties have to be open to new viewpoints, ideas, and challenges.
  • Possibility of offending: This mode may require working through some sensitive issues. You risk worsening the situation and potentially hurting others feelings if unsuccessful. Consider leadership coaching programs which can prepare you to address these situations.
  • Vulnerability risk: It is possible that others may try to exploit your flexibility and openness. Being emotionally intelligent is crucial here.

When is it Best to Collaborate?

In his assessment of the collaborating conflict handling mode, Thomas Kilmann states that collaborating solutions are often highly desirable but are only realistically feasible when a situation meets very specific criteria.

➡️ One scenario is when you want to learn, as collaborative discussions tend to be the most straightforward means of learning from other people. In this mode you are able to test your assumptions without the worry of your energy getting into defending your existing views as we find in competitive arguments.

➡️ Kilmann also emphasizes that this mode is also useful when dealing with complex issues that require for you to merge insight from people with diverse perspectives. It also provides a way of garnering a more complete understanding of the situation at hand from the diversity of specialized perspectives.

➡️ The collaborative mode can also be a proper choice when working through problems in a relationship; business or personal. In any long term relationship unresolved issues can stack up as frustrations build up from past accommodations and compromises. In situations such as this, collaborating can serve as a way to bring such issues to the surface so that the core problems in a relationship can be resolved.

How to Collaborate in Conflict: Engage Others.

  1. A great place to start is working on setting the right tone when raising up conflict issues and doing it in such a way that doesn’t come off as being competitive or creating defensiveness.

Thomas recommends utilizing “we” language to help create a collaborative environment once timing is figured out as it helps avoid putting blame on the other person.

It puts the focus on solving a joint problem that can be solved together, as a team.

  1. The second, and most important step in collaborating is identifying other individual’s underlying concerns.

In order to do this successfully it is important to learn how to effectively focus on each person’s concerns as opposed to their positions.

The concerns in a conflict are what each person cares about and is inherently threatened by the conflict.

  1. Progressing to a position where both parties see the conflict as a mutual problem you can focus on brainstorming solutions that would satisfy both of your concerns. This is crucial for leadership team development.

It does require both parties to remain flexible during the process while knowing when to be firm on about the most important concerns you both have.

Become A Collaborative Leader With The Right Tools

Collaborative leadership doesn’t just happen overnight. And truly practicing it isn’t easy. You have to play as a connector, engage and empower your employees, work as a team at the management level, and ensure you’re not overstepping.

Most importantly, understanding how to collaborate in conflict situations.

The benefits of a collaborative leadership style is undeniably important to strengthen your company and your team.

To properly know how to practice this leadership style, check out Unicorn Labs’ leadership coaching program.

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