Collaborative leadership: moving from top-down to team-centric

September 06, 2019

Collaborative leadership: moving from top-down to team-centric

unsplash-logo Margarida CSilva


How tapping into collective intelligence can boost productivity and increase team engagement


As business landscapes become increasingly networked and distributed, more companies are ditching hierarchical leadership models in favour of collaborative leadership approaches. In fact, 51% of respondents in a 2018 Deloitte survey rated “C-suite collaboration” as very important.

What’s more, a third of millennials say that they believe within 10 years “the CEO role will no longer be relevant in its current format,” according to an American Express report. And a survey by Virtuali and found that nearly half of millennials see leadership as a way to empower others.

Ultimately, a majority of the millennial generation—poised to lead Industry 4.0—is not comfortable with top-down leadership roles. Instead, this new generation of leaders is flattening vertical structures and organizing like ants to enhance collaboration, agility and collective intelligence.

What is collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leadership is a management practice that aims to bring managers, executives and staff out of silos to work together. In collaborative workplaces, information is shared organically and everyone takes responsibility for the whole. That’s in contrast to traditional top-down organizational models where a small group of executives control the flow of information.

Collaborative leaders, according to Harvard Business Review, regularly seek out a diversity of opinions and ideas among teammates to build strategies and solve problems. As a result, employees are more engaged, feel trusted and are more likely to take ownership of their work.

Through collaborative leadership, managers and executives can create an inclusive environment that energizes teams, releases creativity, and cultivates a work culture that is both productive and joyful.

How to implement collaborative leadership at work

While making the decision to move beyond the command-and-control approach is an important first step, it takes effort and planning to change. Here are some strategies that have worked for organizations as they transition to more collaborative workplaces.

1.   Clarify your common purpose

One of the keys to becoming more collaborative is to have a clear, compelling purpose for the change, says Michelle Chambers, a leadership expert at Chambers & Associates, an organizational development consulting firm. Not having clear goals with an overarching purpose can be a barrier, she says.

Chambers cites the health care sector as an example. Patients might have stressful experiences going through the health system because they get bounced from one specialist or staff member to another. Ultimately, they never see the full picture of their care plan. When medical teams focus on collaboration, the staff is reorganized to focus on patients, rather than individual skills and expertise.

Example: The Cleveland Clinic, one of the largest nonprofit health centres in the U.S., adopted a new care model in 2007 to improve collaboration. The new model resulted in increased quality, efficiency and positive patient experiences.

As part of its approach, the clinic focused on improving relationships by recognizing all employees—and not just physicians—as caregivers. This stood in contrast to hospitals, where the primary relationship is considered to be between the doctor and the patient.

2.   Keep communication lines open

Adopting open communication styles throughout an organization is essential to collaboration. Start by training staff in the specific skills required for collaboration, such as appreciating others and engaging in purposeful conversations, and then model that behaviour.

Example: At Pixar Animation Studios, fostering community has helped the film company’s employees openly exchange ideas across group boundaries. “Anyone should be able to talk to anyone else, at any level, at any time, without fear of reprimand,” writes co-founder Ed Catmull in his popular book Creativity, Inc.

Company employees are encouraged to engage with anyone else to share feedback or ideas, without having to follow a formal chain of command. Pixar has also helped encourage collaboration across teams by designing a building that draws people out of their offices and into centrally located spaces to encourage personal interactions.

3.  Build partnership skills

Despite good intentions, the reason efforts to create collaborative organizations often fail is due, in part, to a lack of partnership skills, says Gervase Bushe, a professor of leadership and organizational development at Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University.

While it might sound touchy-feely, a key part of developing partnership skills within teams involves acknowledging that everybody’s experience will be different. However, all experiences are still valid. If the boss wants to be in partnership with employees, she can’t use her power to make an employee’s experience undiscussable, wrong or uncomfortable to bring up. Otherwise, that partnership goes out of the window.

Example: Palomar Health, a Southern California-based health provider, found that it was not making decisions or working through conflicts effectively. Building up its organizational partnership skills and changing executive leadership behaviours led Palomar to become more collaborative and to focus on improving client experiences.

4.   Don’t waste time

“Part of the challenge with collaboration is that it’s messy, it’s complex and therefore can be very time-consuming,” says Michael Lee, co-instructor of a collaborative leadership program at Harvard. But you don’t need to overhaul your whole organizational structure to adopt even a few collaborative leadership techniques, Lee says.

Instead, Lee advises, “It’s useful to think about all of the ways that I, as a manager or leader, can bring this into my team and organization.” Whatever collaborative leadership approaches you adopt, efficient integration into workflows is paramount. Both managers and employees will be less likely to embrace collaboration in the workplace if they feel it adds additional tasks—and time—to their busy schedules.

Example: As the Lyft Business division of the ride-sharing app grew, traditional document sharing, email and messaging apps were unable to keep up. Benjamin Sternsmith, area vice president of sales, acknowledged the need to tap into communication tools that enhance, rather than impede, real-time collaboration and transparency across the organization. “When you have collaboration happening in one spot, leadership doesn’t need to be copied on an email,” Sternsmith explained.

5.   Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability

“Collaborative leadership truly requires a manager to let their guard down a little and offer a little bit of vulnerability,” says Dr. Jerry VanVactor, an active duty health care administrator in the medical service corps of the U.S. Army. “By collaborating, what the manager is saying, essentially, is ‘I don’t have all of the answers; please help me.’ ”

By encouraging more people and perspectives to be engaged in identifying problems and developing solutions, managers are ensuring stronger outcomes. However, VanVactor warns that managers will need to be prepared to accept that their ideas may not be the best ones. True collaboration must involve a managerial willingness to set aside ego and to listen to and incorporate others’ ideas.

Pave the way for forward-thinking businesses with collaborative leadership

Ultimately, there’s a need for businesses to break down hierarchies in favour of a more collaborative organizational approach, especially at the C-suite level. Forward-thinking businesses, companies and communities are likely to focus on leadership practices that are less directive, inspiring people to engage in new and different ways, both in how they work and interact with each other. 


This article was originally written by Alex Samur. Full credit goes to Slack, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.

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