A collaborative leader is someone who helps their teams and organization work better together. As simple as this sounds, it’s one of the toughest roles to step into.
Talking about collaborative leadership in general terms, we risk drifting into the abstract lands of business school platitudes and coaching aphorisms.
In the interests of staying grounded in the real world, I’ve focused on five daily habits that all collaborative leaders share, even across diverse contexts.
These are small, near-zero effort practices you can employ every day to promote collaborative leadership both in yourself and within your organization.
What is collaborative leadership?
Today’s market is characterized by constant change and disruption. Companies that can’t evolve quickly and consistently deliver improving products are losing out to those that can.
In the past, a small group of high-level decision-makers would be responsible for the exchange of ideas between departments. Today’s healthy companies have connections at every level of the hierarchy.
Collaboration leadership has emerged in response to the reality that many of the traditional business boundaries that once divided the responsibilities of the company are no longer tenable. Sales and product development, for example, can’t live in separate silos in a world where consumer response has so much immediate influence.
Instead of top-down controllers within a well-defined sphere, companies need individuals who can work effectively with colleagues outside their domain in a flattened hierarchy.
Effective collaborative leadership is hard because of the heterogeneous skill sets and perspectives that comprise teams today. The same manager may be coordinating work between their immediate team, other teams, contractors, marketing, sales, and so on. Command and control management is not an option.
Collaborative leaders recognize and respect the independence team members need to perform at their best. They balance that independence with guidance, not micromanagement, to keep everyone focused on a shared goal.
There is no playbook. Collaborative leaders have to learn on the fly, over and over again, as situations and personnel change. In that sense, collaborative leadership has to be maintained. It requires daily effort.
Each habit in the list below will help you turn small interactions into opportunities for the team to refine their process, understand each other better, and break down any boundaries inhibiting collaboration.
The 5 daily habits of collaborative leaders
1. Collaborative leaders look for gaps in communication
The trend toward collaborative leadership can be seen, in part, as a response to the problem of information silos.
When different departments aren’t communicating freely, information travels vertically within one management system, but not across the company. In other words, it’s “siloed” from other systems. This can cause a number of problems and missed opportunities.
Collaborative leaders break down information silos by encouraging communication and partnerships among the different groups.
They don’t wait to be assigned to a leadership team after a problem has surfaced—they are spotting gaps in communication every day, and recognizing small process failures that can be corrected early.
A smaller version of information siloing can happen on teams, where conversations take place across a range of channels. Even when people are on the same platform, they are using it in different ways with varying degrees of skill. It’s easy for channels or calendars to form where someone gets left out, or doesn’t understand the full scope of the discussion.
Collaborative leaders make sure that their whole team understands what’s being shared instead of each person being solely responsible for their individual contribution.
2. Collaborative leaders give and seek constructive feedback
Collaborative leaders have strong interpersonal skills and excel at communication. To develop in both these areas, make it a habit to give and seek constructive feedback.
Generally, people that you work with want to know how they’re doing, and what you think of their ideas. Depending on the leadership role you occupy and a person’s aspirations, they may be very keen to hear what you have to say—the good, the bad, the and ugly.
When you don’t offer feedback, your colleagues are unlikely to fill the void with positive thoughts. They may think you don’t like them, don’t care about their contributions, and aren’t invested in their future.
Constructive feedback is focused on what the team is building together, and such criticism needs to flow freely throughout the team and organization. Collaborative leadership is all but impossible if a limited set of outspoken perspectives dominate the conversation.
What are some common qualities of constructive feedback?
- Actionable: Give feedback people can act on–avoid vague or big-picture criticisms that leave people unsure of what to do next.
- Direct: Tell people what you mean in the clearest possible way.
- Purposeful: Tie your feedback to specific goals and outcomes.
- Relevant: Frame feedback within the scope of the project to start the conversation off on a shared footing. If it’s not directly related to the task at hand, tether your conversation to team or company values.
- Respectful: Be fair and use language that makes someone feel like you want the best for them.
It’s fine to be conscious of “giving too much” feedback, but how does your team feel? If you don’t know, you can always ask.
3. Collaborative leaders seek to learn what they don’t know
Curiosity isn’t always counted among sought after management qualities, but it should be.
People who are curious are open to, if not excited, by new ideas. They’re eager to learn well beyond the necessary professional development associated with maintaining an active leadership role.
The life of a complex organization depends on the healthy function of all its organs. How they work together changes constantly. In 2020, for example, millions of people who never dreamed of working from home started doing just that. Some may never return to a traditional office.
As a collaborative leader, it’s important to keep your knowledge current. Being deliberate about trying to learn something new every day, you avoid getting in a rut. Productive areas of focus include:
- Technology: What are the latest updates, features, and integrations on the platforms you use? What are your competitors finding success with?
- Knowledge: What insights and events are changing your field? What about the neighboring fields that fall under the scope of collaborative leadership?
- Skills: New skills are rewarding and inevitably help you refine your processes. There are also distinct collaboration skills you can focus on.
- Relationships: Who are your colleagues outside work? What past experience might they leverage if asked to do so? Who at the company aren’t you working with yet?
Collaborative leaders are also able to transfer knowledge between putatively unconnected realms. Whether they share their source with the group or not, they often draw on fresh insight from family, sports, hobbies, and other activities in order to promote teamwork and camaraderie.
4. Collaborative leaders make introductions
You don’t have to be a social butterfly to play an important role in fostering connections for your organization. By making it a habit to introduce people, you increase the flow of information and possibilities for collaboration.
Looking at a productive partnership in retrospect, the moment of introduction marks the bottleneck where before there was nothing. Without that initial connection, neither person could have contributed to the eventual output.
Those in leadership roles have the vantage to see potential connections that others cannot. It’s important to take advantage of these opportunities to promote collaboration and unique clusters of talent within the company.
Spur of the moment introductions can be very valuable. In the wake of a crucial meeting, you may have less than 60 seconds to bring people together. Even in remote settings, you have to strike while the iron is hot. Send an introduction email quickly and reference the immediate context.
Introductions can be awkward, so anticipate some resistance on the part of the people you’re trying to connect. Make sure they know the specifics of what you see, and that they have the power to act on it. You’re not proposing a side-project in addition to their other work, right?
Not every connection is going to pay dividends. Be deliberate about the people you choose so that your opinion continues to carry weight.
5. Collaborative leaders are mindful of their body language
Promoting an open workplace is important beyond freeing the flow of ideas. Company mission statements are rich with worthy goals of inclusivity and acceptance, but all too often leaders overlook the most fundamental way of embodying those ideals.
People are attuned to non-verbal cues. Body language shades and alters the information a person shares. Without being mindful of it, leaders can send the wrong message.
Teams work best when everyone feels confident to speak their mind. They want to know that their ideas will be heard, their criticism won’t be taken personally, and that everyone is buying into an environment of mutual trust and respect. Something as simple as not facing someone can derail an entire conversation.
Creating a safe and open space is crucial for collaboration, but it takes more than the words you say. How you sit, how you talk, how your body responds to different people—it’s like tells at a poker table. If people think they recognize a difference between what you are saying and what you feel, it undermines your perceived integrity and authority.
In any productive team, there is conflict, some ideas get snubbed, and emotions come into play. A leader’s example goes a long way to keeping a team on track during periods of intense collective stress. It’s difficult to be mindful of your body language, especially in these situations where your cognitive load is focused wholly on the work in front of you.
Make a habit to be mindful of your body language, and you’ll be in control at the times you need it most.
Benefits of collaborative leadership
Introducing these habits into your work life will keep you focused on the importance of collaborative leadership throughout the day. They will help you recognize and capitalize on opportunities to increase the number of productive relationships in your organization.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of collaboration leadership is resilience.
During the Covid-19 outbreak, unknown dependencies were revealed across the market. Businesses and nonprofits that couldn’t diagnose and respond to complex problems quickly have had a very difficult time.
Case in point: the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) caused by a shock to global supply chains.
Talking with ProPublica in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Robert Wachter gave a sober assessment about the problem of information silos in hospitals. He said:
“I’ve helped run services in hospitals for 25 years . . . I’ve probably given two minutes of thought to the notions of supply chains and PPE. You realize that is absolutely central to your preparedness. That’s a lesson.”
For today’s leaders, the previously defined spheres of responsibility need to be blurred and broken down. Compartmentalized or limited information creates blindspots that can be devastating for organizations and the people they serve.
Collaborative leadership contributes to the long-term health of an organization by making it more resilient in times of crisis. Information and insights are routinely shared across all levels of the hierarchy. Potential problems can be not only surfaced quickly, but solved by cross-functional teams working comfortably together.