The Collaboration Conundrum

Successful leaders encourage employees to work together without letting it get out of hand.

When it comes to being a collaborative leader, managers must walk an extremely fine line. Those who stay siloed in their area of expertise while using the command-and-control style of leadership may struggle adjusting to new realities in their office, industry or agency. On the other hand, managers who try to lead by consensus may watch decision-making and execution slow almost to a halt under their leadership.

In a recent Harvard Business Review white paper, authors Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hanson described their research on top-performing chief executive officers with a focus on what it means to be a collaborative leader. They found that such leadership requires executives to play the role of connector, to attract diverse talent, to model collaboration at the top and to show a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate. Ibarra and Hanson acknowledge that developing these skills is hard work, but research suggests they can be learned and do help executives’ long-term performance.

Playing Connector

Ibarra and Hanson use the term connector as Malcolm Gladwell did in his book The Tipping Point (Little Brown, 2000) to describe leaders who have many ties to different social worlds. What’s important about these leaders is not the number of people they know but rather their ability to link people, ideas and resources that wouldn’t normally bump into each other. “In business, connectors are critical facilitators of collaboration,” Ibarra and Hanson wrote.

The most successful collaborative leaders develop contacts not only in typical areas but also well beyond them. For example, a successful private sector leader would focus on working with local clubs, industry associations and customers and suppliers as well as with those in adjacent industries, from innovation hot spots like Silicon Valley or from emerging economies. Connecting with these groups and industries helps open leaders’ eyes to new opportunities and partnerships.

Engaging Talent

Ibarra and Hanson highlighted research that consistently shows diverse teams produce better results, provided they are well led. The most successful leaders possess the ability to bring together people from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures and generations and leverage all that they have to offer, the authors wrote. Both companies and government agencies work extremely hard to attract talented employees only to subject them to homogenizing processes that kill creativity, they said.


Managers can fight wasteful homogenization by promoting collaborations between experienced people and newcomers and by bringing together people who haven’t worked with one another before. “Left to their own devices people will choose to collaborate with others they know well or who have similar backgrounds,” Ibarra and Hanson wrote. “Static groups breed insularity, which can be deadly for innovation.”

Collaboration at the Top

The age-old adage of leading by example rings true when it comes to collaboration. When employees see their efforts to collaborate sabotaged by political games and turf wars higher up in the organization, they get the message their collaboration was for naught. Ibarra and Hanson pointed out that at the senior management level, leadership teams often fail to actually operate as a team. Instead, each member runs his or her own region, function, product or service category, without much incentive or responsibility for collaborating with other senior leaders. “Depoliticizing senior management so that executives are rewarded for collaborating rather than promoting their individual agendas is absolutely essential,” they said.

Strong Hand

Once leaders start getting employees to collaborate, they run the risk of overdoing it, according to Ibarra and Hanson. This is the double-edged sword of collaboration. The authors point out that, too often, people will try to collaborate on everything and wind up in endless meetings, debating ideas and struggling to find consensus. In these cases, “collaboration becomes not the oil greasing the wheel but the sand grinding it to a halt.”

Effective collaborative leaders assume a strong role directing teams. They maintain agility by forming and disbanding them as opportunities come and go. Effective leaders also assign clear decision rights and responsibilities, so that at the appropriate point someone can end the discussion and make a final call. Although constructive confrontation and tempered disagreements are encouraged, battles aren’t left raging on.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.