What is Collaborative Leadership?

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything about our lives, and most notably, the way we do our jobs. Furloughs, redundancies and job insecurity has left many of us unsure about the direction our career is taking. With the UK facing the highest number of vacancies in recorded history – job posts surpassed 1,000,000 for the first time in July 2021 – the need to keep your existing employees engaged and happy becomes even more stark.

A study by HR software firm Personio found 38 per cent of employees plan to quit their job within the next six months to a year, and as a result, many workplaces are reassessing their approach to management and are considering a more collaborative and cooperative leadership approach.

Research from Bloomberg shows workplace productivity is still below pre-pandemic levels, but the situation is improving. Leadership and management teams need to be prepared to welcome their teams back to a different working world. Some employees will continue to work remotely, whereas the majority are likely to take a hybrid approach. Managers therefore need to create a working environment that employees are happy to return to and feel part of – collaborative leadership can play a role in this.

Business landscapes have changed in ways we could never have imagined since the pandemic. More companies are ditching the traditional top-down approach to leadership and looking at more collaborative methods. 51% of respondents in Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends survey cited “C-suite collaboration” as very important. Since the pandemic, this figure is bound to have increased, and more companies are acting accordingly.

Understanding Collaborative Leadership

Collaborative leadership is an effective way of managing people without being limited by organisational boundaries. The role of the manager in a collaborative work environment is much more far-reaching. You don’t just oversee projects and make sure goals are met, you work alongside your team and in collaboration with other teams and departments to reach wider organisational goals. Collaborative leadership encourages a more open workplace culture, and purports that all employees should gain a better understanding of how the wider business works. Collaborative leadership can appear in a range of different guises including:

  • Free sharing of information across all levels of the company – managers should ensure there are regular internal newsletters and focus groups to share information and solicit employee feedback
  • Empowering each employee with a way to contribute practically to the success and growth of the organisation – ensure all employees have the chance to lead meetings and share their individual input into projects
  • Decision-making as a cooperative process, with all decisions made as a team through consensus or similar – keep it as simple as a “raise your hands” vote and give time for feedback so those not on the winning side can still get their point across. For some decisions, anonymous voting via questionnaires could be appropriate
  • Managers playing a pivotal role in bridging gaps between departments and preventing silos  – leaders must be eagle-eyed and on the lookout for silos developing. Most employees are used to splitting off into groups in this way, so you have to actively encourage collaboration. Get amongst it, be involved and be available.

Collaborative leadership has many benefits for both organisations and their employees. This type of management structure leads to:

  1. A shared sense of purpose across all levels
  2. Closer and better-connected teams who understand the role of their work in the wider organisation’s purpose
  3. Engaged and interconnected employees
  4. The chance to develop future collaborative leaders
  5. Increased employee loyalty and retention


Implementing collaborative leadership practices in the modern workplace

Integrating collaborative leadership practices into the current climate gives employees a chance to reconnect with the workplace after months of working remotely.

However, collaborative leadership takes time and effort to implement as it involves unravelling traditional structures which may have been in place for decades. The traditional authoritarian “boss” figure simply does not exist in a collaborative workplace, and this can be hard for some managers to understand.

Pixar Animation Studios has a renowned reputation for its collaborative approach to work helping to drive the business’ creativity. Co-founder Ed Catmull explains “Anyone should be able to talk to anyone else, at any level, at any time, without fear of reprimand” and this should be something you look to nurture in your organisation too.

To effectively implement collaborative leadership in your workplace, keep these key points in mind:


Identify your common purpose

If you want your employees to get on board with such a significant change in leadership style, they need to know the reason and the benefits to themselves and the organisation. Managers need to be committed to the concept themselves before it will be possible to persuade others of the benefit of the change. Why does your organisation want to implement collaborative leadership? Common reasons include:

  1. Recognising you’ve been failing to connect with your team effectively
  2. Tackling organisation-specific problems
  3. Boosting employee morale and giving each employee a chance to voice their opinions
  4. Learning from the talent within all levels of your organisation, and not just the senior leadership team

You must identify the common purpose for the change and communicate it effectively.  Use internal communications channels to effectively explain and promote your change in leadership style. Your leaders should lay the path, whether that’s through an open letter to employees, their blog, or an internal newsletter.

Provide clear and concise content explaining the benefits of the change and how it will benefit everyone as individuals, not just the organisation. Line managers may need additional briefings to prepare for the change in approach and so they put it into action and get their teams on board. Company-wide messaging and group channels on communication platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams can also be great for ensuring remote and flexible employees feel part of the change too.


Learn from mistakes

Adopting a new leadership style is sure to lead to mistakes and failures along the way, but these should be viewed as opportunities to learn. Allocating blame or returning to a toxic authoritarian “boss” role not only undoes your collaborative work but also alienates your employees further. Collaborative leadership highlights the importance of responsibility at all levels. This means accepting your mistakes and using them proactively to move forward. James Quincey, CEO of Coca Cola is known for saying “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough” and he pushed his managers to move beyond the fear of failure and use it positively.


Build inter-Level partnerships

Traditional siloed leadership styles place barriers between management and employees. This can be a hard thing to break, as there’s a perception that management are separate from other employees and on a different, elite level. Collaborative leadership challenges this concept. However, those in management must act to develop partnerships with the whole team. This can be done in several ways including:

  • Taking time to get to know your team as individuals
  • Developing your empathy skills
  • Specific team-building exercises and training
  • Involving your team in decision-making
  • Position yourself as a participator, not always the director


Implement relevant training

To fully implement effective collaborative leadership, your leadership team needs tools to make the change. Relevant training for line managers is crucial for changing their mindset and providing them with the knowledge to put this new strategy in place. Specialist leadership training programmes such as the Imperial College and Corndel Level 7 Executive Development Programme is a good place to start. This new programme can be entirely funded through the Apprenticeship Levy. Collaborative and horizontal management practices are at the forefront of leadership thinking and allow your management team to become advocates of this approach.

Collaborative leadership allows businesses to be dynamic and change as the world changes. Who wouldn’t want to tap into the unknown resources and talents of employees at all levels of their organisation? With a siloed approach, many voices are silenced, while collaborative approaches lead to more innovation, more motivation and a team who feel valued and part of the company’s success.