How to Be a Collaborative Leader

Dori Meinert By Dori Meinert October 25, 2017
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How to Be a Collaborative Leader

Collaboration has become the be-all and end-all at many organizations. After all, numerous studies have linked it to revenue growth and customer satisfaction.

But many company leaders encourage collaboration for collaboration's sake, without giving much thought to how it should be done.

For example, they often don't consider how to keep their top people from burning out from too many joint projects, says Kevin Oakes, chief executive officer at business consultancy Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) in Seattle.

Effective collaboration occurs when leaders work intentionally to create and support a culture that facilitates teamwork, i4cp researchers have found. In other words, it has to be done on purpose.

"Purposeful collaboration is a very concerted effort by companies to focus collaboration on business outcomes, to train individuals and managers on how to collaborate effectively, and to make it safe to report collaboration overload," Oakes says. "We're finding that high-performing organizations are taking this seriously and creating programs that help develop collaboration techniques."

Researchers at i4cp studied the collaborative practices of more than 1,100 organizations in partnership with Rob Cross, an associate professor of global leadership at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass., and co-author of a 2016 Harvard Business Review article on collaboration overload.

In the past two decades, the time that employees spend collaborating with others, via meetings, e-mails or phone calls, has increased 50 percent or more, Cross noted in that article. Yet one-third of high-performing organizations and half of low-performing ones report making no effort to identify if or where employees are so overloaded helping others that they can't get their individual work done, according to i4cp research released in September. (To identify "high-performing" organizations, the researchers used the companies' multiyear reports of revenue, customer satisfaction and other indicators.)

Leaders at all levels can play a key role in building a culture based on trust, which encourages productive teamwork and alleviates collaborative overload. But training is especially needed for midlevel managers and first-line supervisors because these employees are too busy getting their individual work done, i4cp researchers found.

They identified four ways leaders in high-performing companies are ensuring more-productive collaboration at their organizations. To encourage similar results in your organization, you should:

Model collaborative behaviors. Delegate. Reduce the number of layers that employees must go through to get a decision, and make it clear who the decision-makers are. Run more-efficient meetings with clearly stated goals. Create an environment where people feel free to express their ideas. Reward leaders who model collaborative behaviors.

Build strong networks. Help members of your team, particularly new employees, connect with people in other areas to enhance their skill sets. Teach leaders and individual contributors how to build effective networks. High-performing organizations are three times more likely to teach this in their development programs, i4cp researchers found. Be aware that the people with the strongest networks aren't always high on the organizational chart.

Encourage collaboration across the enterprise. Urge employees to collaborate on problem-solving. Establish connections outside of your department as well as with customers and suppliers.

Structure the work to avoid overload. Make sure employees aren't burdened with unproductive collaboration. Is too much time being spent in meetings or answering e-mails? Take note if a usually reliable worker starts arriving late to meetings or becomes slow to respond to requests. That could be a clue that she has too many demands on her time. Encourage people doing similar work in different units or locations to share best practices with each other.

Most important, block out time for reflection and strategic thinking. Step back and recall why you are fostering collaboration in the first place. What are you trying to achieve?

"It's important to take time out to examine it and not just let it happen—or hope it's happening well," Oakes says. "Hope is not a strategy."

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor of HR Magazine.

Photo Illustration by Laura Bruce for HR Magazine.

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