James Hyndman

Are leaders killing collaboration?


Collaboration: It’s one of the biggest buzzwords in the business world. Conventional wisdom states that collaboration between employees can address a range of issues, from organisational silos to unengaged workers. What’s more, collaboration is touted as a way to better harness the knowledge of mature workers and technical experts within an organisation.

The result has been a flurry of books and publications on collaborative leadership. However, are leaders themselves actually killing collaboration before it starts? There’s growing evidence to suggest that traditional ways of thinking about leadership are actually holding organisations back from becoming more collaborative.

Is Collaborative Leadership A Paradox?

The traditional leadership model is hierarchical and top-down – the antithesis of collaboration. The dominant personalities that are traditionally recruited for leadership roles can often prevent true collaboration from occurring within the teams they manage.

This issue was explored in the recent book ‘The Australian Leadership Paradox’, which suggested there are three traps that leaders fall into that prevent collaborative efforts from having any effect. These three were:

  • Competition within an organisation: Scarce resources and differing interests make it harder to foster shared learning.
  • Control and power: Leaders are often used to being in a position of power, which makes it harder to foster the equality needed to undertake meaningful collaboration.
  • Commitment: Building a collaborative workplace takes time and effort, which in turn requires considerable motivation and commitment from leaders.

Furthermore, the authors suggested that traditional leaders focus on coordination and technical aspects of a project, rather than collaborating and building interpersonal connections.

Are collaboration and leadership compatible?Are collaboration and leadership compatible?

Building True Collaboration

Redefining the focuses of traditional leaders doesn’t just occur at the executive level, it has to be an organisation-wide undertaking that builds trust and sharing among employees. Collaborative leadership can only really occur if it is accompanied by staff members who are willing to play their roles and contribute to new initiatives.

This strikes to the culture of an organisation – collaborative leadership doesn’t work if staff feel like their input won’t have any impact or that collaboration is simply a rubber-stamp for senior leaders.

Likewise, this culture will affect the way executives are brought into an organisation or promoted internally. A culture of collaboration can attract and develop a new generation of leaders who are collaboratively minded, overcoming the seeming paradox between leadership and collaboration.

Research from the University of North Carolina found there are three major features of an organisational culture that affect how well teams collaborate:

  • Trust
  • Communication
  • A shared vision and purpose

Achieving these three qualities can’t just come from leaders – this culture of collaboration has to be built from the top down (in the case of a shared vision and purpose) and from the bottom up (trust and communication). Ultimately, collaborative leadership is just one side of a business culture that also has to empower individual staff members to think collaboratively.
Finally, there is a risk that companies become too collaborative at the expense of effective decision-making, sacrificing agility in the face of a growing roster of interested stakeholders. Agility is fast becoming the most sought-after feature of modern firms, and staying nimble naturally means that organisations can’t have major decisions or new projects held up by too many different stakeholders.

Can Leadership Become Too Collaborative?

A study from McKinsey & Company found only 12 per cent of surveyed firms have become agile organisations, while the vast majority are only having limited success in this area.

However, collaboration is not always to blame – McKinsey also found that knowledge-sharing is a key component of an agile organisation, suggesting these firms are using collaborative processes to actually move faster.

The famous quote attributed to Cyrus the Great – “diversity in counsel, unity in command” – is as true now as it was in ancient Persia. Executives and managers have to retain the ability to make decisions, often under tight time constraints, while still canvassing the opinions and insights of those with a stake in the outcome.

Finding this balance between collaboration and leadership is something that organisations and individual executives will continue to grapple with. Charting a strategy between the two has to be a priority for executives, especially considering the close relationship that exists between culture, innovation and collaboration.