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What is collaborative leadership and how can you practice it?

By Ilkka Mäkitalo on May 24, 2022 2:30:00 AM , updated on May 23, 2022

The new era of work demands collaboration and inclusion at every level, which requires a new model of leadership. Hybrid work is now the norm, and online collaboration tools have broken barriers between employees, teams, and functions. 

Millennials and Gen Z, who make up a huge portion of today’s workforce, want open and transparent leaders who support a diverse and inclusive workplace. They tend to associate hierarchical leadership models with a lack of transparency and progressiveness. 

This is where collaborative leadership comes in. Also known as participative leadership, this leadership style has roots in democracy and has grown in popularity over the past decade. 

What does collaborative leadership mean in the context of today’s workplaces, and how can you successfully practice this approach? 

In this post, we’ll answer these questions and address how to overcome three common challenges you might face with collaborative leadership. 

What is collaborative leadership? 

Collaborative leadership is a management practice where everyone is involved in making and shaping decisions that impact them. This is the opposite of traditional, top-down hierarchies that no longer suit today’s hybrid, purpose-led working world. 

With collaborative leadership, everyone has a role in creating impact. All employees understand their part in the larger context, which allows them to feel the work they do is meaningful. When people feel included and valued in an organization, they’re more engaged and motivated to do great work. 

How to practice collaborative leadership 

Moving to a collaborative leadership model can be a big change for organizations that are used to the traditional, top-down approach. Here are some concrete steps you can take to start practicing collaborative leadership in your organization.  

Create a safe space for open communication 

There is no collaboration without communication. But making space for open and meaningful conversations in a hybrid workplace where employees are spread out across different countries and time zones can be challenging. 

Collaborative organizations rely on online platforms to foster transparency and keep people connected. It’s important to create a safe environment free of distractions where you can invite people to contribute, ensure everyone’s voice is heard, and leverage all insights to make collective decisions. For example, KONE Corporation renewed its values with all 60,000 employees by enabling everyone to discuss and engage virtually through Howspace. 

Inviting the entire organization to build something together can be a transformative experience for everyone. It not only boosts engagement and loyalty but also helps execute whatever is being defined, like the organization’s strategy or values. People will feel ownership of what they have helped create and will want to see it come to life. 

Show vulnerability  

Vulnerability is a leadership strength, not a weakness. Being vulnerable as a leader means you don’t steer clear from difficult conversations—you have the courage to ask questions even if you might not like the answers. When you let go of control and put your ego aside, you can embrace curiosity, be open to other people’s ideas, and work together.

As Simon Sinek says, being vulnerable doesn’t mean you need to talk to your team like you would talk to your therapist. “It doesn’t mean broadcasting everything. What it means is being honest about the daily machinations. It’s totally fine for a leader to say “I don’t know what the future looks like. I have a vision, and I think I know what it takes to get there. But I know I can’t do it alone, I know it’s going to take all of us.”” 

Being more vulnerable as a leader can improve the morale of your team, increase trust, and help you build a truly collaborative work environment. You can start small with being vulnerable by just being honest—even saying “I don’t know how to be vulnerable, but I want to try,” is a great starting point. 

Foster a culture of trust and transparency 

To get people to openly share ideas, accomplish goals together, and build relationships, an environment of trust and transparency is key. 

To foster this culture, leaders need to set an example with transparency and model collaborative behavior. For example, let’s say you announce that collaboration is going to be a clear part of the organizational culture, but then exclude employees from a cultural renewal process. That won’t exactly send the right message. Instead, practice collaboration by inviting everyone to take part in the culture change process. By doing so, you’ll get better ideas, make space for innovation, and reduce change resistance.  

Implement a self-management structure 

A self-management structure is when employees manage their own work responsibilities without relying on a supervisor. Everyone in a self-managed team is expected to work and avance things independently. Self-directed employees make conscious decisions and take responsibility for their own professional development. A collaborative leader doesn’t dictate how self-led employees should do their job, but trusts they can work with others to reach shared goals.

Collaboration is a big part of self-managed teams, as individuals need to work together without managers’ guidance. This model requires leaders to trust teams to tackle complex challenges and long-term projects without the micro-management that can come with traditional organizational structures. 

3 main challenges of collaborative leadership and how to overcome them   

The steps listed above are a great place to start with collaborative leadership, but adopting this approach can come with a few challenges. Based on our experience with practicing collaborative leadership, here’s our list of the top three common challenges and how to overcome them.  

Setting up a process for collaboration  

Especially when many different stakeholders are involved in an organizational process, you need clear structures that allow everyone to participate in a meaningful way. Simply creating a space for all the people to join and start discussing is not enough. Without the right process, the quality of the discussions won’t be up to par.

So what’s the solution? Create a process for people to share their insights on the topics they’re the best experts on. For example, if you’re developing a company strategy, the management team could first be invited to define the outline of a strategy and the main points to discuss. After that, all employees could be invited to help finalize the key points. Everyone should be given enough context and background information to fully understand what the organization needs to reach a consensus on.

Alternatively, the entire organization could be invited to take part up front: the management team could first present a challenge or an objective and ask all participants to share what they think should be done. 

By crowdsourcing ideas this way, where each individual brings in their experience and point of view, you’ll likely get diverse and valuable inputs. In this scenario, the management’s role is to process and shape all the insights into the required format such as a strategy, roadmap, or action plan.

Making sure the process is efficient 

Let’s face it: collaborative leadership can be time-consuming. When everyone’s invited to give their input, there’s a lot of information to digest. Plus, it’s possible that conflicting views lead to debates that drag on. This is especially a risk when there are many people involved. What can you do to speed up the process?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that time spent during this strategy stage will lead to more efficiency during the execution stage. In the process of collaborating to create something new, participants typically discuss and imagine how to execute the shared vision in their daily work. So although the process can seem time consuming, that time is well spent and will pay off in the long run.

Secondly (and just as importantly), adopting the right online tools and ways of working can do wonders to increase efficiency. For example, Howspace is powered by AI that can quickly identify and list the key topics from a large number of different discussions—a process that could take a very long time if done manually. Howspace also makes it easy to brainstorm and prioritize together even in a group of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Besides the AI, features like voting and polling also help ensure everyone gets their voices heard.

When you run the process through an online platform, there’s no limit to how many people can contribute. For example, Finnish Medical Association (FMA) engaged 20,000 doctors to develop their basic principles of healthcare—a process that would not have been possible without an AI-powered online platform.

Facilitating conversations to get diverse insights 

Because a collaborative leadership style gives voice to the people, some have argued that individuals would then just drive their own agendas, leaving others left out. Similarly, some fear that the group consensus will cause social pressure to agree with the majority—a psychological phenomenon called groupthink. This would hamper the original purpose of collaborative leadership, as people would be too afraid to speak up and potentially become disengaged.

Above all, this issue is for the leader to handle. There are a few slightly different collaborative leadership styles that have a different take on the leader’s role, ranging from the almost autocratic style where the leader listens to the people but ultimately makes all the decisions, to the genuinely democratic style where the leader is the facilitator and the decisions are made through group consensus or voting.

Whichever style you choose, there needs to be a skilled facilitator in place to guide the group through the process and handle different personalities. It’s not just about who makes the decisions, but also about how you design the process, create the shared space, and ensure that everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts honestly.

Online tools can help with this as well. For example, you can allow people to vote or comment anonymously to get comments that would otherwise be left unexpressed. Having various different ways of participating available also helps people choose one that suits them best. Some people are more comfortable participating by writing, for instance, while others would like to speak up to voice their thoughts.

Collaborative leadership is here to stay

When leaders make decisions in isolation, employees have a hard time understanding and appreciating these decisions, let alone taking action on them. Lack of transparency in the workplace breeds distrust, and a host of other issues. By not leveraging the collective brainpower in your organization, you’d miss out on important ideas and solutions to problems. 

Collaborative leadership, on the other hand, boosts employee engagement, loyalty, and satisfaction by ensuring everyone plays a role in creating impact. Considering the fact that younger generations today prefer—or even demand—collaborative leadership styles, it’s safe to say collaborative leadership is here to stay. 


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