Collaborative leadership is a style that is increasingly popular these days. Directive leadership is falling out of fashion as team members demand more input and respect.
People don’t like being told what to do and how to do it. Instead, they want autonomy and the ability to contribute to team and organisational decisions. They want to shape their working environment and feel as if they are making a difference.
For a leader, a collaborative leadership style often means acting as a facilitator. Rather than simply telling people how something will be done, a collaborative leader gathers input from team members and colleagues.
Of course, as with many parts of leadership, it’s all about balance. Having too much of anything is often a bad thing, and so is having too little.
In this post, I’m going to unpack some of the dangers of collaborative leadership, and of course, some ways you can try to avoid them.
Why Collaborative Leadership Can Work So Well
Collaborative leadership works well because you give your people the opportunity to have a voice. Team members like to give their opinion about how things should work. After all, it’s their team too, right?
Team members can become highly engaged in teams with inclusive and collaborative leadership. Instead of telling people what to do, you are asking them. It’s a big difference.
There are some factors that can reduce the effectiveness of collaborative leadership. For example, some organisations and cultures have what is called a high power distance.
In high power distance societies, people have a greater respect for authority and won’t usually question the decisions of their leaders.
This differs from country to country, and between organisations. In many Western cultures, power distance is relatively low. This means people tend to question authority, believing that their input is valuable and should be listened to.
It’s in the low power distance cultures where collaborative leadership is more likely to be found.
The Downsides of Collaborative Leadership
Sometimes collaborative leadership can cause leaders to come unstuck. Here are some common traps to look for, if your default style is to be a collaborative leader.
1. Collaborative Leadership Causes People to Forget Who the Boss Is
Leaders who practice collaborative leadership can fall into the trap where leadership boundaries become unclear. If you often ask for input from your team members, they may come to expect this as the normal way of operating.
Collaborative leadership can set the precedent that you will always ask for input, so people will come to expect it. If you have a situation where you decide collaboration is not appropriate, your team may be upset when you don’t ask for their opinion.
This can be an unfortunate side effect of inclusive, collaborative leadership. You have trained your team that their opinion matters. Therefore, you have set a precedent that everything is negotiable.
Usually, feedback is a good thing. Sometimes however, you just need your team to do something without questioning your decisions.
How to Address the Problem
You will find situations where it’s not appropriate to ask for input. Leaders need to be empowered to make the final call in their teams. I’ve found the best approach is to be clear with your team when you need to make a unilateral decision.
Some leaders may take input from people, and then simply ignore it. Instead, it’s best to state up front that you need to make the call.
It can also be helpful to set expectations in your team about your style. For example, you might explain that in general you like to work collaboratively, but from time to time, you may need to make decision without input.
I remember earlier in my career, I used to like sharing my opinion on the direction of the team (are you surprised?). One day, my manager sat me down and said “This time, I just need to make this call.” Enough said – I got the message!
Setting boundaries is important.
2. Decision Making Takes Longer
When leaders collaborate, they may get a better quality outcome than those who don’t, because of the diversity of views that can shape the solution.
However, all that collaboration takes time. Whether you’re trying to make changes in your team or across an organisation, setting up collaborative forums is difficult and time consuming.
Not only do you need to set up time to engage your stakeholders, you also need to capture the inputs and agree on an outcome.
Attempting to collaborate and then ignoring the input you receive is likely to put people offside. You need to somehow show that you have been listening and taken their feedback on board.
How to Address the Problem
When deciding on your approach to problem solving or making a change, you need to assess the need for collaborative leadership. Collaboration will take longer, but you may get a better outcome and you will also engage stakeholders, bringing them along “on the journey”.
Sometimes when leaders fail to collaborate they run into trouble down the road, because important stakeholders raise questions and concerns at having never been consulted.
On the other hand, over-collaboration can be a problem. Collaborating with people who aren’t interested is likely to result in comments like “Why doesn’t she just make the decision without bothering us?”
If something needs to be done fast, you may opt for a directive approach instead, or at least limit the amount of people you’ll consult. You can make the decision and move on. It will depend on the sensitivity of the topic and how much buy-in you need from your stakeholders.
3. Collaborative Leadership Can Mean That Loud Voices Drown Out the Rest
Collaborative leadership means engaging the right people and taking a wide variety of input. As an example, if you are trying to change a process in your team, you will need to consider how it affects all team members.
Obviously, team members vary in their enthusiasm and attitude. Some will want to participate in everything you raise. Others would rather let you just get on with it instead.
It may turn out that you have a few “vocal” people who always give you their opinion and a few that remain silent. This can mean that whatever input you receive is unbalanced, which may favour certain team members over others.
How to Address the Problem
You need to assess whether collaboration is giving you a balanced view. Having one opinion that crushes all the rest is likely to result in a poor outcome.
Engaging people in different types of forums is helpful for bringing out the silent observers. Many people who stay silent still have valuable opinions, but they may not feel comfortable sharing them in front of everybody.
Directly asking quiet team members for their input is helpful too. Some people are hesitant to speak their mind to leaders, so inviting the discussion can be a way to break down this barrier.
4. Accountabilities Become Unclear
Sometimes when leaders are really collaborative, they use shared decision making to get outcomes. While this can work well, it depends on the situation.
Directive leaders leave no room for ambiguity. They make the decisions, and everyone knows where they stand. By contrast, collaborative leaders may create a “grey area”, where people are uncertain who should make the final call.
Collaborative leaders sometimes work this way because they are averse to confrontation. While confrontation is not always pleasant, making a hard decision and upsetting some people is an unavoidable part of leadership.
How to Address the Problem
Collaborative leaders can benefit from developing clear decision-making processes, so that everyone knows how decisions will be made.
Even if a collaborative leader is uncomfortable with conflict, having an agreed process makes it easier to follow through and make the tough calls when needed.
Spreading accountability for decisions can actually make people uncomfortable, particularly if they fear they may be blamed for some aspect of a decision if it goes wrong.
Collaborative leadership can result in better outcomes than directing people with a “my way or the highway” approach. However, collaboration can also take longer, reduce the perception of your leadership authority and result in sub-optimal outcomes when it is used as the only leadership strategy.
Continue to collaborate and you’ll likely improve engagement in your team and workplace. Simply keep an eye out for the pitfalls when you do!