What is Collaborative Leadership, and How Can It Improve Your Workplace?

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. Millennials and Gen Z now make up more than half the U.S. workforce, and by 2030, all members of the Baby Boom generation will have reached retirement age. Among the many changes ushered in by this generational shift is a move toward collaborative leadership styles instead of top-down management – and it’s transforming the culture of work.


So, what is collaborative leadership? According to Harvard Business Review, it’s the capacity to engage people and groups outside one’s formal control and inspire them to work toward common goals—despite differences in convictions, cultural values, and operating norms.


Put another way, it’s a method of managing people across functional and organizational boundaries. Rather than overseeing projects and ensuring goals are met, managers work alongside employees and in collaboration with other teams and departments to accomplish common goals. Information is shared, everyone’s perspective is considered, and everyone takes responsibility for the whole.


What Collaborative Leadership Looks Like

Collaborative leaders facilitate a team climate that puts a premium on knowledge sharing and connection. As you might guess, this leadership style requires high levels of emotional intelligence to be effective. Collaborative leaders:

  • Don’t rely on titles to influence employees and other individuals. 
  • Treat team members as individuals with unique talents and actively engage them in decision-making.
  • Invest in relationships and build trust with colleagues and direct reports. 
  • Accept change and know when to relinquish control. 


In contrast, top-down management controls the flow of information and determines the course of action teams must take. Top-down leaders:

  • Rarely ask team members for their point of view or input.
  • Put less emphasis on idea development and more on task completion.
  • Infrequently delegate or trust their teams with completing important tasks.
  • Incentivize performance with a system of rewards and punishments. 


Collaborative leadership functions best for diverse groups and cross-unit and cross-company work, and when innovation and creativity are critical. Top-down works well within a defined hierarchy, but it’s an increasingly poor choice for complex organizations and when innovation is important, which is why more leaders are turning to collaborative approaches.


Two female coworkers sitting in an office discussing collaborative leadership.

How Collaborative Leadership Can Improve Your Workplace (and Your Bottom Line) 

There is increasing evidence that companies holding on to traditional top-down management styles do so at their own peril, as the silo mentality costs companies billions of dollars every year.


On the other hand, teams that share information discover new insights and generate more profitable ideas. Collaborative leadership also has a positive impact on employee retention. In study after study, employees cite collaboration and a sense of community as one of the reasons they stay with a company. Millennial and Gen Z workers also report increased job satisfaction, motivation, and engagement in collaborative work environments.


According to Leaders.com, other benefits of the collaborative management style include:

  • Better conditions for open communication among leaders and workers
  • A stronger team that operates with the mentality of tackling challenges and problems together
  • Employees becoming more “accepting of organizational rules and their perceived organizational performance
  • Creating leaders at every level who are capable of working together in a productive, motivating way
  • More opportunities to listen to and include diverse thoughts, feelings, and beliefs before reaching a decision that affects team members
  • Keeping the human connection element alive in technology-driven companies 


How to Build a Culture of Collaborative Leadership

There are a few key tasks required to make a successful transition from top-down management to a collaborative leadership style.


Start by Modeling

Remember the old adage “do as I say, not as I do”? It’s time to ditch that mindset. Model the behavior you expect to see in your company. Provide and accept honest feedback. Make connections and encourage dialogue across silos. Recognize your strengths and skills gaps so you can provide or enlist help where needed. Encourage idea generation at every level of the organization.


Establish a Sense of Shared Purpose

To move your goals forward, you need a clear vision, and it needs to be communicated uniformly across the enterprise. Share the same messages with everyone from executives to entry-level employees, so you’re all rowing together toward common goals.


Promote Open Communication

Becoming a collaborative organization means making leaders more approachable and facilitating the free flow of ideas. Identify silos and work to actively dismantle them. Employees should be empowered to share with team members at all levels of the organization and across any unit without fear of reprisal for “going outside the chain of command.”


Earn Team Trust 

Take active steps to establish trust with your employees through open communication and by keeping your promises. Ask for their input and expertise and give them the space to deliver on objectives.


Encourage Risk-Taking

Create a culture of creativity and innovation through calculated risk-taking. Accept that a certain amount of failure is part of this process – don’t penalize employees for trying new things.


A manager displaying collaborative leadership to improve the workplace.

Are You a Collaborative Leader?

You might be a collaborative leader already if you:

  • MOTIVATE your employees to do their best work through positive reinforcement rather than fear and power plays.
  • DELEGATE appropriate tasks to team members and encourage them to contribute to their full ability.
  • COMMUNICATE clearly, especially when seeking input or feedback, by providing the parameters of a situation and effectively gathering/parsing information provided by the team.
  • SHARE necessary information about company metrics and goals with your employees so they can make data-informed decisions.
  • MANAGE CONFLICT by facilitating healthy discussions that seek to solve issues at the center of the conflict.


How many boxes did you check off? If you missed a few, take heart. The traits of a collaborative leader aren’t always intuitive, but they can be learned.


If you’re ready to make the switch to a collaborative leadership style, explore USF’s live online leadership and management programs. They’re a convenient and affordable way to skill-build while earning credentials that demonstrate your mastery of collaborative leadership concepts.


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