collaborative leadership

Collaborative leadership is a style that is popular these days. Directive leadership is falling out of fashion as people demand more input and respect. No longer do people want to be told what to do and how to do it.

People 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. People want to have their say.

Collaborative leadership means often a leader will act as a facilitator. Rather than telling people how something will be done, a collaborative leader asks for input from stakeholders. Then they facilitate conversations to get to an answer.

I would categorise myself as a collaborative leader. However, sometimes you need to adapt your leadership style. One situation might call for you to be more directive, while another may need an inclusive approach.

Why collaborative leadership works

Collaborative leadership works because you give people opportunity to provide input. 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 factors that influence the effectiveness of collaborative leadership. Cultural factors are one influencer. Some organisations show a high power distance. In these situations, it’s likely that culturally, people will respect authority and won’t question decisions of their leaders.

This will differ from country to country, and between organisations. In many Western cultures, power distance is relatively low. People tend to question authority, believing that their input is valuable and should be listened to. As such, collaborative leadership can be engaging in these environments.

Pitfalls of collaborative leadership

Sometimes, however, collaborative leadership can cause a leader to come unstuck. In many situations it works, but look out for some common traps when your style is too collaborative.

1. People forget who the leader is

Leaders who practice collaborative leadership can fall into the trap where leadership boundaries become unclear. One day you’re asking for input from everybody. The next, your team members are questioning every decision you make and providing their opinion constantly.

This can be an unfortunate side effect of inclusive or collaborative leadership. You have trained your team that their opinion matters. Therefore, you have set a precedent that everything is negotiable. And many things are. Usually, feedback is a good thing, but sometimes, you just might need your team to do what you ask without too much questioning.

How to address the problem: Sometimes, when you come up against a problem where there simply isn’t room for a collaborative approach, you need to be crystal clear about that.

Don’t take input from people when you know you will just have to ignore it. Let them know the situation and why things need to be done “my way” this time.

2. Decision making takes a long time

When leaders collaborate, they may get a better quality outcome than those who don’t. 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 your 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 solving a problem 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, making them feel like their contribution matters.

On the other hand, over-collaboration can be a problem. Collaborating with people who are indifferent about your particular topic is likely to result in comments like “Why doesn’t he just make the decision without bothering us?”

If something needs to be done quickly, you may opt for a directive approach instead. You can make the decision and move on. It will depend completely on the sensitivity of the topic and how much buy-in you want from your stakeholders.

3. People may not participate evenly

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 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 need input on. Others would rather just let you get on with it and don’t want to provide input.

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. It may even favour certain team members.

How to address the problem: You need to assess whether you are getting balanced input when you are collaborating. Having one opinion that crushes all the rest is likely to result in an unbalanced outcome.

If you aren’t able to get balanced input for an issue that effects multiple people, then you may consider choosing the directive approach, so you can try to directly address any inequality in the process. Alternatively, you may need to try harder to engage the “silent” parties in the discussion.

Collaborative leadership can result in better outcomes than directing people with a “my way or the highway” approach. However, it can also take longer, blur the perception of your leadership and result in an unbalanced outcome if you aren’t careful.

Continue to collaborate, but be wary of the potential pitfalls when you do.