Groupwork Centre Blog

Collaborative Leadership

Smiling man in his 50s in a work shirt with no tie, head and shoulders only, whiteboard/workshop background

Steve Ray

“Fundamentally, leadership is not about the results.  Leadership is about taking care of the people who are responsible for the results.  It’s a human job.  That’s what leadership is.”

Simon Sinek

The days are coming to an end where people need to be controlled, managed and watched as a standard practice thought to improve productivity. Not surprisingly, a self-fulfilling prophecy plays out when management is run in this way. When we expect that people are going to do the wrong thing, why are we surprised when people fail?

There is a new leadership evolving, one that understands that the most precious resource in an organisation is its people and that we need to care for them and remember that it’s the creativity of the whole person that will help us deal with the complexity of this rapidly changing world of ours. If we want just rational, logical, non-emotional widget-counters, we can employ robots and use more computers.  But human beings are needed to deal with human issues.

Collaborative leaders may be pretty thin on the ground but their numbers are fast growing.  The new leadership approach recognises that the resource of most value in any workplace is the people within the team. And because they are human, people need acknowledgement from their leaders across the mental, emotional and spiritual planes to be fully committed and engaged.

A collaborative spirit is one in which we feel something is not right unless every effort has been made to involve others in whatever is going on. The pure and simple facts of the matter are, that any one individual only has one perspective, can offer only one way of seeing things, whereas a collective will always provide a better, more complete answer because of the range of experience that exists when a number of people are brought together.

In decision-making, the challenge always is how you collaborate when everyone thinks their idea is the best one, or when there is conflict or when some people want to take over etc.  How do you choose from all that comes in through that diversity of viewpoints?  It all seems too hard.  No wonder people fall back on voting as best case or autocracy at worst.

Collaboration is X-rated. It requires people to be in their adult selves and to realise that each person at the table has their own agenda which requires great communication skills and in particular, self awareness. A collaborative leader without self awareness is like an eagle without wings.  It’s self awareness that enables a person to see how they too are part of the dynamic, part of the reason the process may be stalling.

It’s all too easy to believe our problems lie in the “outside world” of other people and situations. It’s that “other person” and their stubborn-ness or that noisy person over there or perhaps it’s being held up by that shy person who won’t speak. Why won’t they speak for goodness sake!

The truth lies much closer to home. Every experience we witness has to involve that person we see in the mirror at some level, which means – if we are honest – that there IS something we are doing or not doing that is limiting the collaboration. Collaborative Leaders recognise that.  Because they are self aware they employ a range of very effective ‘microskills’ including validation, normalising, enquiry, wondering, helping people hear each other and more.  These communication or facilitation skills help the flow of conversation to continue or to restart when things get stuck. When conflict happens, they don’t resist or avoid it … they help people to sit in it and encourage them to share what’s going on so any issue can be worked through to uncover the gem that lies beneath.

When people become emotional, it’s often because something important to them is being threatened in some way.  Perhaps their idea is not being heard, or someone else’s idea is challenging theirs and pushing their buttons.  Again, collaborative leaders understand this and stand by people as issues arise.  In doing so they help generate a group safety or what we call “groupness” that helps everyone to trust the space they are in and the people they are with.

As group safety increases, people share more deeply and begin to let go of ideas they held onto so preciously at the beginning and this is where the magic of collaboration happens.  Because it’s not about selecting one idea from many, but about the creation of a solution that reflects something of the unified energy within the group. People start to let go of the preciousness of “their” idea as 2 plus 2 becomes 5 and people realise that what’s created through a collaborative process could never have come from just one individual.

We have a principle that “the wisdom is in the group”.  When a collaborative space is created people see the importance of acting in certain ways so the truth of this principle can be experienced.

Collaborative leadership is emerging as the next frontline management approach because it harnesses the wisdom of the collective. When collaboration becomes the default way of operating, decisions become far more robust and stable. People step in and take responsibility as they are heard and valued for their unique contribution. They follow things through because their work now has greater meaning and purpose.

One of the great gifts collaborative leaders give is leadership itself. Because they believe in the unique contribution of everyone, they ultimately empower the individuals in their team or organisation to take responsibility for their work in a way that truly transforms the productivity of a workplace.

Not surprisingly collaborative workplaces are more efficient and effective overall.  The turn-over of staff drops from these organisations because people want to stay.  Amazingly, they have found something to cherish that they probably never thought they would find in the workplace: community.

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