Kayla Heisler
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Have you ever worked somewhere where you had great ideas, but you knew no one would listen to them? Or maybe another department was facing an issue that you thought of a solution for. If any of these situations feels familiar to you, you probably weren’t working for a company that practiced the collaborative leadership style

What is a collaborative leadership style?

Collaborative leadership is a  management style where leaders work with their teams instead of merely providing them with instructions. A collaborative leader does more than merely delegate tasks; they also get their hands dirty right alongside their team. 

The focus is more on collective intelligence than individual achievement. Instead of a select group of high-level people calling the shots, all team members work together to contribute ideas and solutions. People from different departments collaborate, so cross-functional training is more likely to occur than in places that use a traditional leadership model. 

Instead of operating in a manner that is strictly hierarchical, no job is too small for a leader to help with and no employee is too unimportant to contribute. Everyone contributes to the outcome, so a sense of responsibility is spread more evenly than in traditional leadership formats where those at the top make all of the big decisions and receive all of the credit. 

Why is collaborative leadership important?

When collaborative leadership is implemented, everyone’s voice is heard — not just the voices of those who occupy top positions. Regardless of title or amount of experience, everyone has something to offer, and working in an environment led by a collaborative leader emphasizes this. 

Employees are more likely to feel valued and comfortable sharing their ideas, so they are more likely to derive a sense of fulfillment from the work and go above and beyond to do what’s best for the organization. Each individual feels a sense of responsibility for the outcome.

Working with other departments means that everyone’s knowledge is shared instead of being hoarded in different sections. Everyone has different life experiences that lead us to arrive at solutions in our own way, so by making a point to hear different perspectives, collaborative leaders increase their ability to find innovative solutions and identify issues before they happen. 

When employees are able to more clearly understand why their role in an organization matters,  they get a more holistic understanding of the goals and desired outcome instead of only focusing on their own piece of the project. 

What collaborative leadership looks like at work

There are many ways that an organization can utilize the collaborative leadership management style. Collaborative leadership can be implemented in a university where the alumni affairs and admissions officers hold meetings together and examine what events and resources are valuable to prospective students and alumni. 

A director of a company who meets with those they supervise regularly for feedback and disseminates information to them is practicing collaborative leadership. A team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists and caregivers who all work together to come up with the best treatment plan for a patient. 

A restaurant general manager who helps carry food out to customers practices collaborative leadership and executives who invite their direct reports to attend meetings demonstrate collaborative leadership.

6 behaviors of a collaborative leader

1. What skills does an effective collaborative leader need?

One of the most important skills a collaborative leader needs to have is patience. Working with many people directly allows more opportunities for personality clashes, and working with people who have different levels of knowledge in different areas can take time to adjust to. Some employees can lead more easily than others, so collaborative leaders should be able to effectively assess which employees are comfortable taking a central role and which are more comfortable being more under-the-radar

Having strong listening skills is essential because there may be many people contributing ideas at the same time. Because collaborative leaders interact with many people, it’s essential that they are able to communicate clearly and effectively to avoid confusion. Having strong interpersonal skills that allows them to communicate with others is also important as is their ability to motivate team members so that everyone does their best.

2. They ask all team members for their input.

Collaborative leaders look at potential, so instead of letting an employee’s title strictly define them, they look to all employees for answers. Collaborative leaders see the value of each individual team member. Instead of depending on only themselves or those in upper management positions, collaborative leaders reach out to people from every level and department for input — everyone has a voice.

3. They work with other departments to come up with solutions.

Cross-functional teams are a big part of collaborative leadership. Instead of keeping departments strictly divided, all members of an organization to work together. Because everyone in a company has a goal for the team to succeed, everyone works together instead of staying siloed in their respective departments. Employees with different areas and levels of expertise are able to work with one another to make the best outcome a reality. While employees may have their specialty, they are also cross-trained to understand how to carry out processes primarily handled by other departments. 

4. They communicate openly.

Rather than withholding information, collaborative leaders talk often to their teams because they believe that their company is as strong as their least informed employee. They don’t allow barriers to prevent the flow of information. The information flows easily between employees and isn’t only top down. Instead of working hierarchically, collaborative leaders make it clear that anyone can reach out to them. They see the value in each employee and make time to hear everyone’s thoughts informally. They speak clearly about what they are looking for and why. Instead of hiding their mistakes from those they work with, leaders offer themselves as an example when things don’t go the way they expect. Doing so also encourages staff to own up to their own misfires instead of hiding them or worrying about being found out.

5. They are accessible.

Collaborative leaders focus on the outcome more than stroking their own egos. Because they work with their employees on equal footing, they eliminate hurdles from making it hard for interaction. They are likely to adopt an open-door policy where employees can reach out to them regularly. They likely respond to emails personally. They don’t need to maintain a facade of self-importance. No matter how busy it gets at the top, collaborative leaders make time to meet with their employees and heads of other departments. Setting aside "office hours" where employees can meet with them to discuss ideas or bring issues to their attention is one way that collaborative leaders can make sure that they are frequently communicating with anyone who needs to be heard.

6. They welcome questions.

Traditional leaders may believe that their word is law, but in a collaborative environment all team members have a solid understanding not only of the "what" but also the "why." When employees are comfortable asking questions, they are better able to catch issues and discover more effective practices. They are looking to work as a team, not to boss people around. They understand that the best solutions arrive when employees feel comfortable pointing out flaws and trying to gain the best understanding of why things are done a certain way and are comfortable offering up solutions for how it can improve. Questioning a process can be a great way to learn more about and identify flaws that will make the company as a whole stronger in the future. Everyone is given constructive criticism and everyone receives it.

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Kayla Heisler is a New York City-based writer who runs the newsletter totally recc’d