team collaborating in meeting room

Why Leaders Think They Are Collaborating When They’re Not

Leaders talk a good game about when it comes to collaboration.

They’ve watched competitors out-innovate them and suddenly get religion around cross-functional collaboration. So, they collect inputs from stakeholders and collect those inputs to make a decision, which then gets shared with the team. 

But that’s not collaboration.

It’s merely an extension of directive leadership disguised to look like a collaborative, team effort, but a single person is still making the decision and passing it “down” or out to stakeholders or direct reports.

Let’s not call this collaboration. (It’s actually the RACI model of decision-making.)

In this model, the leader navigates who needs to provide inputs—who needs to be consulted, who’s accountable, etc.—so he or she can make a decision.

But it’s not possible for an individual to make the best decision singlehandedly, particularly for strategic decisions or others that have a wide impact.

True Collaboration Requires the Right Tools

Following structured processes or sets of steps helps ensure that teams will arrive at the best possible outcome—whether solving a problem, doing a risk assessment, creating an adoption plan, etc.

Whatever the team task, it goes more smoothly and creates a more robust solution when a collaborative tool is used and someone (usually the team leader) facilitates the process. 

In a collaborative model, key stakeholders are assembled in a team, and the leader acts as facilitator of the decision-making process. The leader shares the process that will be used to make the decision with the team. (It helps if there is a standard collaborative decision-making model that everyone uses so the team knows the steps ahead of time.) 

Then, the team begins working through the decision-making steps.

  1. The first stage is Define. The team clarifies the parameters of the decision they need to make, and the facilitator records the team’s discussion and any conclusions.
  2. Then, the team moves on to the next stage, Choose. Here, the team decides on the criteria they will use to make the decision. They may brainstorm with self-sticky notes, which the facilitator will collect and help organize so that the criteria are clearly defined and weighted.
    Note: The facilitator doesn’t have a say in what the criteria will be or how they will be prioritized. This person’s job is to ensure that the team follows the process and that team dynamics are productive.

  1. Now comes the Identify stage. The team reviews the criteria and identifies possible solutions.
  2. Finally, we arrive at the Decide stage. The team analyzes options versus the criteria. At the end of this stage, the team should reach consensus that they have made the best possible decision. In addition, the team and the facilitator have captured their thinking throughout the process so they can explain—and sell—that decision to others. 

True collaboration requires participation by all team members, which creates engagement in the process and, through this engagement, ownership of the results.

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The Need for Control Kills Engagement

The reason we haven’t moved beyond directive leadership is because leaders don’t want to let go of control. They think they can solve problems better than their teams, and they don’t trust the teams to make decisions—particularly when the leader will be on the hook for the team decision.

They want to make the decisions themselves, and they want engagement and ownership from the team. But it’s not going to happen. 

To create engagement and ownership, you have to let people participate fully in the process. You have to let them make decisions. You have to stop trying to control both the decision and the team.

Well, that’s a scary proposition for many leaders. After all, they’re being asked to eliminate controlling behavior, but they’re still on the hook for the results.

But if you think about it, you never really have “control” over all the people whose buy-in you need to implement whatever decision you want made. Sure, you can order around your direct reports, which may include an entire department. But what about other departments that need to adopt your solution?

When you stop to consider how limited your personal control is, you start to recognize the greater benefits of collaboration.

Collaborative Tools Give Real Control

By using collaborative tools that ensure the team thinks about the right factors and works through the right steps in a structured decision-making—or problem-solving or planning—process, you do have control.

You aren’t controlling the people, but you are prescribing the process they use to make the decision—and you can review the documented thinking process they used to look for any gaps.  

Once people are trained in using collaborative tools, teams can work through decisions pretty quickly.More importantly, they can recognize where they need more information or where they are missing an input.

Let Go of All the Nonsense

You’ll never truly achieve collaboration by hanging onto directive leadership. And frankly, it just takes too much of your time, collecting all that input, making the decision and explaining it everyone.

Let someone else do that, and then, if you need to make really strategic decisions, assemble a team of your peers who are stakeholders of the decisions, and work the decision-making process with them.

That way, you get to focus on larger organizational issues that can’t be made anywhere else instead of doing all that directive decision-making.

And isn’t that what you really want as a leader?

Jason Myers

About Jason Myers

As the Editor-in-Chief of OD Innovator Magazine, Jason Myers is on a mission to help people transform their organizations into more innovative and collaborative environments. He co-developed a Crash Course in Collaborative Project Leadership to arm leaders with needed skills to drive innovation in any organization.

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