When “nice” makes corporate leadership harder:HBR on collaborative leadership vs. cooperative leadership

Ron Ashkenas (Schaffer Consulting) has some solid wisdom for leaders who want to try the sometimes challenging collaborative leadership approach in this HBR article.

“Everyone seems to agree that collaboration across functions is critical for major projects and initiatives. The reality, however, is that meshing the skills and resources of different departments, each focused on its own distinct targets, to achieve a larger organizational goal is much easier said than done. In fact, it takes much more than people being willing to get together, share information, and cooperate. It more importantly involves making tough decisions and trade-offs about what and what not to do, in order to adjust workloads across areas with different priorities and bosses. And despite all the well-meaning cooperative behaviors, this is often where interdepartmental collaboration breaks down.” (Italics mine….)

It turns out that cooperation becomes sabotage by making it hard to get people on the same page in terms of working together, rather than sharing information and respecting hierarchies together.

Ashkenas writes: “Most managers are cooperative, friendly, and willing to share information — but what they lack is the ability and flexibility to align their goals and resources with others in real time. Sometimes this starts at the top of the organization when senior leaders don’t fully synchronize their strategies and performance measures with each other. More often, however, the collaboration challenge resides with department heads, product leaders, and major initiative managers who need to get everyone on the same page – and shouldn’t wait for senior executives to force the issue for them.”

His advice?postits_by mat_walker

  1. Be goal oriented, and map out the work required, with clear responsibilities. In essence, create a collaboration contract.
  2. Begin the process with a working session to go over the collaboration contract and make changes and clarifications before everyone agrees.

    Ashekanas seems to argue from a top down management, presenting a contract for the whole collaborative task, and shifting it as necessary only once. “One of the biggest mistakes that managers make is trying to foster what we might call “serial collaboration”, i.e. going from one function to the next and trying to cobble together an agreement. Not only is this time-consuming, but it rarely works since each change affects the next. The better alternative is to get all of the needed collaborators in the room together as early as possible to work through the plans, make adjustments, and find ways to share resources and align incentives.”

It makes sense in a traditional corporation, or a large group, to follow this practice, because by creating alignment and an understanding of purpose with a structured planning approach, leader/managers might avoid the “nice” trap of cooperation that always backfires when unclear responsibilities or other challenges pop up.

This is an thoughtful suggestion for a way to integrate collaboration from the top down. It requires a kind of leadership that depend on followers, i.e. lower-level managers and staffers. Even if it doesn’t push traditional leadership out of the box of the usual power-dynamics, in the hands of a skillful leader, it might not only get the job done, but also build cameraderie and skills in the activated team. And that’s a good start, breaking up the politeness and accommodation game and encouraging collaborators to bring their best skills and perceptions to the table.



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