Want to be a better collaborator?

men demonstrating collaboration by rowing a boat together
Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Collaboration is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days. You may know how important it is for organizations to collaborate in order to drive high performance, but do you know what is required to be a truly collaborative leader?

What Is Collaboration?

People sometimes use the word collaboration interchangeably with cooperation, but the two activities are very different.

Cooperation is where everyone is doing their own work and supporting each other when needed. Solutions are created within departments or teams and people emerge from their own silo to get support or approval from other teams when needed. With cooperation, you can still very much operate within silos and be successful.

Collaboration is more complex. This is where you have truly cross-functional work being created by multiple ‘silos’ in the organization. Instead of only interacting at key moments, these distinct groups are combining to co-create solutions throughout the process.

What Cooperation Looks Like

Cooperation may look like this:

The Director of Marketing identifies the need for a new communications strategy. They create the strategy within the Marketing department and then go out to the Sales and Product departments to get feedback. These departments suggest some adjustments, which the Director of Marketing takes back to their team for review. They decide to implement some suggestions and ignore others. After the strategy is finalized, the Marketing team rolls it out to the other departments for implementation.

Notice that there is a clear ‘owner’ of the work and that they have control over the final product. While they get feedback from other groups, they keep the final decision making authority.

What Collaboration Looks Like

Taking a collaborative approach may look more like this:

The Director of Marketing identifies the need for a new communications strategy. They reach out to the Product and Sales departments to create a working group. One employee is selected from each department and temporarily report to the Director of Marketing for this project. They create a strategy that considers the needs of all three departments and present it to their directors for approval. The Director of Marketing approves it together with the Directors of Product and Sales, and all three roll it out in their groups.

The key difference here is the shared ownership of the solution. Instead of the Director of Marketing positioning themselves as a ‘hero’ with a fully formed solution, they identify the problem and invite others in to help them solve it. The solution is co-created and relies on other teams to come to the table as equals.

What Stops Leaders From Collaborating?

So, if collaboration is so important, what stops good leaders from doing it effectively? Of all the things that can prevent leaders from choosing to collaborate, what I hear the most often are: habit, fear, and lack of time.


Probably the biggest blocker for leaders to adopt a more collaborative mindset is habit. Most of the time, we rely on reflexive reactions to situations. The longer we’ve spent handling a certain situation, the stronger that reflex will be and the more conscious effort we will have to expend in order to shift it.

As a leader, you may have spent decades being rewarded for your individual effort and for your ability to use your positional power to mobilize your team to get things done. It can be difficult, then, to shift your mindset and build comfort with sharing success with others and learning to influence rather than control.


The next thing I hear a lot is fear of loss of control over results. We all know that results are often what gets measured within organizations. While process and relationships are, of course, important, those are harder to measure and often get ignored if the results are poor.

When we collaborate, we’re forced to trust other people. We place our focus on building relationships and influencing our peers rather than always simply driving tangible progress towards goals. This can create feelings of fear. If things go wrong, we may worry that we won’t have anything to show for our efforts and be penalized.

Lack of Time

Finally, we are all dealing with the issue of not having enough time. Command and control may feel more efficient than spending the time required to co-create solutions with different parts of the organization. Who has time for all those conversations and negotiations?

When leaders are forced to weigh the risks of delay against the risks of delivering a sub-optimal solution, we often have a bias for delivering something on time. Even though this impedes our success in the long-run, it can be hard to break the habit of rushing to meet deadlines.

Making a Shift to More Collaboration

So, what should you do if you want to incorporate more collaboration into your style?

Cultivate Curiosity

One of the first things to do is to cultivate genuine curiosity. You can apply this whenever there is a problem to be solved. Instead of thinking ‘I know how to solve this!’, ask others how they see the issue and what they would do to solve it instead.

You may be surprised to learn that others see things the same way you do, or you might learn something new. Be prepared to flex your stance on an issue and combine ideas to arrive at the best solution for everyone involved.

Face Your Fears

Even with genuine curiosity, you may still find it difficult to face your fears of failure or of being overshadowed. Practice sharing your goals before you have your plans all sorted out and ask the people around you to help you come up with the best solution for everyone.

Try to focus on your learning. Also recognize that being the person who can bring groups together to create solutions for huge, complex problems is far more impressive than being the ‘hero’ that did something smaller all on their own.

Develop Your Collaboration Skills

Finally, put concerted effort into developing the individual skills that combine to make a leader more collaborative. These are things like relationship-building, influencing, organizational awareness, curiosity, and sharing the spotlight.

Start by getting feedback from someone you trust and who has a good view of the work you do regularly. If that person is a great collaborator themselves, even better. Figure out your areas for improvement and practice in low stakes environments. You might even find a leader who collaborates well and ask to shadow them while they launch a collaborative initiative. There’s no substitute to learning in a real project.

As Lorna Davis says in her Ted Talk, “in a world as complex and interconnected as the one we live in, the idea that one person has the answer is ludicrous.” Be bold enough to admit that you need collaborators so you can step out of your limiting hero role and start tackling the large issues that your organization faces.

Building skills to collaborate effectively takes time, effort, and lots of support. If you are working on developing this skill, consider working with a leadership coach. Coaching can help offer an outside perspective and help you develop a plan to work on the skills that will have the most positive impact for you.

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