The Foundations of Collaborative Leadership
In previous posts, we explored some of the most common reasons companies fail to promote (and sometimes unwittingly sabotage) effective collaboration among workers. In this post, we continue to explore what it takes to lead collaboratively.
At its core, collaborative leadership is based upon the principles and practices that foster healthy adult relationships. That begs the question, what are healthy adult relationships? Here are the basic tenets, and for many of us, the pitfalls. In healthy adult relationships:
We don’t assume that we know what’s best for others
We don’t make demands of others; we make requests*
We avoid the use of rewards and threats to motivate others**
We feel safe to express our needs and desires openly***
We are free to end any relationship that no longer serves us****
Of course, most of us do not operate consistently according to these principles at work. In some settings, we might even regard this list as utopian, even counter-productive. Why is that? There are those who would say it’s because “some people simply refuse to grow up.” Although that may be true, there’s a deeper reason for the prevalence of dysfunction among working adults – a reason that ultimately offers the seeds of hope and empowerment for leaders.
(Reader: Seriously? Did he just say “empowerment for leaders”? This list takes all my power away! The guy must be on something!)
We all share in common one early form of leadership (and followership) training – that is, the training we received as children growing up. Although parenting styles vary considerably, chances are that your parents did not follow the above guidelines with you as a child. And if you’re a parent, nor do you with your children. To do so would be to treat our kids as adults. (Of course, good parents adapt their approach to parenting as their children mature.)
Unfortunately, in the absence of effective training and support, the most natural parallel we have to leadership and management is parenting. And that’s precisely the trap that keeps us (leaders and followers alike) locked into our existing leadership paradigm.
Let’s take a closer look at the problem. As healthy parents, and before our children mature:
We lean upon our wisdom and experience to make decisions on behalf of our children
We make demands that sanction against anti-social or unsafe behavior
We offer rewards as a means to encourage pro-social and safe behavior; We describe consequences and impose punishments, which often appear to our children’s developing minds as threatening
We refrain from sharing our adult needs and desires openly, especially when those needs and desires cannot or should not be satisfied by our children
We do not end relationships with our children (although they do evolve)
These are normal and expected behaviors between parents and young children. Yet, referring back to our previous list, they are the very behaviors that reinforce unhealthy dynamics when practiced among working adults.
None of this is about what’s right or wrong. It’s simply about stimulus and response. When leaders and managers behave like parents, workers and teams reflexively behave like children. And when workers and teams behave like children, leaders and managers are encouraged, and often feel justified, in behaving like parents. These are not consciously chosen dynamics. When operating in these ways, we are simply running the unexamined scripts of our earliest training.
The Path Forward
Leaders and followers are equally engaged in the dance of dysfunction when it occurs. Hence, both are capable of disrupting the pattern. But it generally falls upon leaders – those who possess greater power and authority, real or imagined – to initiate and sustain positive change.
Our job in developing ourselves as collaborative leaders begins with raising our awareness around these common dynamics. As we develop awareness, unconscious reactions become conscious responses. We learn to consider, and ultimately to embrace, alternative and more effective approaches to leadership.
What are those alternative approaches? Stay tuned…
(Reader: Aw man… you’re just going to leave us hanging?)
(*) It is, however, appropriate to declare and defend our physical and emotional boundaries.
(**) Rewards: they are best established institutionally, not inter-personally; Threats: we can’t control what others will find threatening, but we can be empathetic.
(***) Having expressed our needs or desires, we are not entitled to getting them met by others without first establishing agreements.
(****) We often don’t see ourselves as free to end work relationships, given the costs we would bear.
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.
Take our survey to assess your company's collaborative IQ.