“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” -Winston Churchill

Great leaders understand the power and necessity of change. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly and most likely permanently changed how employees work and the importance of collaborative leadership. Only 12% of knowledge workers want to return to full-time office work. And over half of employees want to work remotely three days or more per week.

As workspaces and processes change, leadership needs to evolve as well.  For leaders committed to a collaborative leadership style, techniques that were once effective in an in-office setting may now be obsolete. And for leaders not committed to being collaborative leaders, well, the (authoritarian or other) tactics previously employed, simply will not work in a decentralized or hybrid environment.

What is Collaborative Leadership?

In the past, traditional top-down organizational models kept different departments operating in silos. Information, ideas, and ambition got stuck with the manager one level up, perhaps creating industrial scale efficiency.

Collaborative leadership promotes the organic sharing of information and a singular team that is equally responsible for adhering to company processes, completing projects on time and on budget, and setting challenging yet attainable goals.

Collaborative leadership is meant to bring managers, executives, and staff together.

Leaders who are leading collaboratively will recognize the benefits. In an economy with a high turnover rate, amid what is being dubbed “the Great Resignation” collaborative leadership can boost retention. 37% Of employees say that “working with a great team” is their primary reason for staying within their organization. A focus on collaboration makes sense for leaders in any industry.

Today’s Employee Meets Yesterday’s Manager

Employee expectations have been rapidly evolving.  A survey of over 300,000 millennial employees revealed their top expectations for the workplace, after working through lockdowns and partaking in countless remote meetings. While fair pay, inclusive benefits, and gender equality all made the list, so did a welcoming atmosphere, where employees can ask questions and be heard, while maintaining some sense of shared ownership in outcomes. Tyler Crawford, chief operating officer at Bankers Health Care, added to the survey’s findings by saying, “[There’s] a frustration of micromanagement or being put in a box. They want to create, they want to bring new ideas.”

Micromanagement is a known killer of productivity. Effective collaboration and micromanagement don’t play well together. This is something millennials, who make up 35% of the workforce, find especially important.

Another expectation millennials have is flexibility post-pandemic. Having a hybrid workplace model is the likely path to success for companies who can offer employees a choice in how and where they work. This can bring unique collaboration challenges for leaders though.

Even if collaborative leadership has been the main focus of an organization for years, a few tweaks are likely needed to continue experiencing the benefits.

In a post-COVID world, what's more important than salary?

How to Evolve as a Collaborative Leader

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that leadership is a team effort. As individuals, no one can successfully take on the challenges of today’s digital economy. Effective leaders handle challenges with agility, through collaboration and not by control.

Here are some examples of what an evolving collaborative leadership role requires.

Bridge the Divide Between the Digital Haves and Have-Nots

The pandemic has shone a much-needed spotlight on the digital divide, or the gap between those who are benefitting from the “Digital Age” and those who aren’t.

In the process, companies have to recognize that performance lags where tech deficiencies weren’t addressed rapidly and with sensitivity – or there’d be a dramatic drop in productivity. Whether or not the hybrid work model is permanent, the technology adopted while we were remote will likely be coming back to the office, at least for the foreseeable future. A team’s productivity and the company’s competitiveness will depend on it.

Companies that discover the best practices to remotely onboard new employees, create an inclusive remote company culture, utilize remote collaboration tools, offer mentorship, and accommodate individual employee and project needs will see the best results.

Employ Different Strategies and Tools by Personality Types

As a leader, adopting a flexible collaborative leadership style is essential to improving the performance of individuals – with their individual needs – of the various teams in an organization.

Fundamental to an organization’s existence, teams should all have the same true north. But that doesn’t mean they have to take an identical path to get there. Allow employees to embrace their preferred working style, as long as it keeps them productive and engaged with the rest of the team.

To make an analogy to the service industry, one of the first things any waiter will learn is to adopt their service strategies to the particulars of a table. If a couple is having a romantic dinner, be invisible. If a rowdy bachelor party comes in, get involved and make it even rowdier.

If Mark from accounting has a knack for seeing the bigger picture and understanding how to get there on his own, skip the micromanaging. But if Erica from customer service has a habit of overthinking, help her learn to trust her instincts.

Improving Diversity

Improving diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace can be a constant challenge. The gender gap is a crucial area to focus on, with just under 30% of senior management being female. Racial diversity is another major gap in the inclusivity of many organizations. (Dis)Ability, age and tech know-how are all important diversity gaps in the workplace – that can be all too often overlooked.

As a carrot, organizations that rate highly for diversity have better collaboration, greater retention, improved market share and greater success entering new markets. Finding ways to not only employ but also engage a diverse workforce is a must for a collaborative leader.

Is it a chicken or egg scenario? What comes first, success or diversity?

The flip side is that if a company isn’t embracing diversity, it is likely a negative indicator.

Focus on recognizing bias within an organization. Establish a sense of belonging for everyone and remember that quotas don’t equal inclusion. Empathy, transparency, and a willingness to learn are all important attributes for a collaborative leader.


Engaging Millennials

Yes, back to those millennials – but for good reason. Leaders unfamiliar with their workplace preferences or a lack of willingness to adjust their leadership style to be more accommodating and collaborative will likely be experiencing friction sooner than later.

As we’ve already explored, millennials require a unique approach. They’re the first digitally-native generation to enter the workplace. Whereas boomers and Gen-Xers may have years of experience with the old ways of doing things, millennials are coming into a rapidly evolving workspace.

Millennials want to feel a culture fit within their organization. They also want opportunities for career progression. Professional growth and development opportunities are two of their top employment priorities. And while this likely sounds like most people who’ve ever worked, the pace of change, turnover, and productivity has been breathtaking over the last few years (let alone decade) and it’s easy to forget these needs when there’s a constant fire to put out.

Take an interest in more than just an employee’s skill set. Routinely offer continued education opportunities and focus on promoting from within over new hires. Align a cause marketing campaign with suggestions from team members or have employees select a not-for-profit to support as a group. This should give employees an additional sense of belonging.

Collaborative Leadership and Keeping Turnover Low

More than half of employees have already or plan to look for a new job (in 2021). That should be a frightening number to anyone with employees.

The Great Resignation is fuelled by disengagement, burnout, and a desire for better compensation and enhanced work/life balance.

Disengagement can be addressed through check ins, performance reviews, and actively addressing issues. Addressing burnout is a must – force employees to take time off, give surprise holidays for the company, and encourage conversation. Make it collaborative by giving the whole company a proverbial microphone (or as they call it now “a Slack channel”). Recognize high-performing employees for their dedication – it can be more powerful than a raise.

Collaborative leaders also know that listening to employees is more important than ever. The pandemic brought on new challenges. Without employee input during any struggle, corrective action can be difficult to develop and implement.

Boosting collaboration will reduce turnover. Reduced turnover in turn will help boost collaboration.

Manage the Ongoing Politicization of Everything

Workplace politics are nothing new. But for some organizations, politics become all too prominent in the workplace culture. Finding the balance between operating a business while being sensitive to political issues is a skill collaborative leaders need to develop.

In today’s workplace, 53% of employees believe that playing politics at work, like engaging in gossip or blackmailing a colleague, can lead to a promotion.

When it comes to political conversations, a Glassdoor poll found that while 60% of respondents believe politics shouldn’t be discussed at work, 57% do it anyway.

The best approach to managing ongoing politicization is to lead by example. Stay away from gossip, favoritism, unnecessary competition, and hearsay. Become more available to employees.

The workplace should be a safe and inclusive space. Politics can quickly end that.

Are Leaders Even Open to Collaboration?

Of the countless surveys that point to an overwhelming desire that employees have to be working remotely, there is one specific group less enthusiastic about the remote and hybrid work trend: management. 72% of managers with teams that are remote, would prefer all their teams to be in the office.

Ultimately today’s manager was likely in management mode before the shift to remote work. That status quo likely served them well. The need to reinvent and evolve their leadership style can be a scary proposition.

But adaptive and collaborative leadership is not an option – it’s a requirement.

Ready to Effectively Collaborate?

Collaborative leaders create a trusting environment where employees can speak freely and share ideas without fear. They build meaningful relationships with employees over common ground and encourage individual and collective growth. They value inclusiveness, manage with empathy, and embrace teamwork, especially when faced with a crisis.

Collaboration may already be a staple within an organization – but leadership’s approach to collaboration must constantly be evolving. Leaders can and must develop a collaborative leadership style that employees engage with and embrace. And the benefits that follow can be profound.


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