Companies across the country and around the globe are moving in increasing numbers to a more collaborative style of operations, eschewing long-standing departmental silos and assembling interdisciplinary teams to complete assignments. The benefits, they've discovered, are too great to ignore, including increased innovation and agility, improved employee engagement and retention, and greater profitability.
But this new approach to work raises important questions. One of which is this: Do leaders require different skills and personality traits to be effective in a collaborative role as opposed to the old "command-and-control" role so common in more hierarchical work environments?
The short answer: yes.
Collaborative leaders must achieve four key tasks, and to do so they require strong skills in very particularly areas, according to two academics who studied the issue and published their findings in the Harvard Business Review. The authors, professors Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen, tell us that good collaborative leaders must:
1. Play the role of connector.
Effective collaborative leaders are adept at connecting employees both within their own companies and with people affiliated with other organizations of all types, the idea being to foster better understanding and the cross-fertilization of ideas.
"Networking in adjacent industries, innovation hot spots like Silicon Valley, or emerging economies or with people of different educational or ethnic backgrounds helps open [employees'] eyes to new business opportunities and partners," they write.
To link people in a meaningful way, connectors must be able to "read" others well, keeping in mind that that roughly 95 percent of all communication is nonverbal. They must also be able to empathize and understand emotional states. In other words, they must possess what's commonly called emotional intelligence. (I prefer the term "emotional competence" because this ability can be learned and developed, as opposed to an inherent trait such as basic intelligence.)
It's helpful that a connector be comfortable interacting others, so extraversion is also a useful trait. However - and this is important - too much of extraversion can undermine connectors. Self-involved, look-at-me individuals who rank high on the extraversion scale are at risk of paying insufficient attention to people they're trying to connect.
2. Attract diverse talent.
As professors Ibarra and Hansen point out, research has consistently shown that diverse teams produce better results. Unfortunately, not everyone is good at assembling diverse groups. Many have the tendency to "replicate" themselves by hiring people who look the same that they do and have similar backgrounds. Open-mindedness is a key trait for a collaborative leader because seeing diversity as a truly positive asset is the only way to build teams with diverse personalities, backgrounds, and skills.
3. Modeling collaboration at the top.
The writer James Baldwin once observed that: "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." The same is true of employees. "Do as I say and not as I do" is a recipe for failure. What's the key trait here? I'd say emotional competence again. With a well-developed EC, leaders will model collaboration through their very nature. That's just who they are - or who they've become.
4. Show a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate.
This is a particularly interesting finding, given that it appears, at least at first blush, to be somewhat counterintuitive. Strong-willed leadership might initially seem antithetical to a more collaborative and horizontal (as opposed to hierarchical) approach, but it's not. It can't be.
"Too often," Professors Ibarra and Hansen write, "people will try to collaborate on everything and wind up in endless meetings, debating ideas and struggling to find consensus. They can't reach decisions and execute quickly. Collaboration becomes not the oil greasing the wheel but the sand grinding it to a halt."
What we need is a leader with conscientiousness, decisiveness, the right amount of agreeableness, and, again, emotional competence. People need to know what to expect. Think of it like a map (or the GPS on your phone, if you prefer): If you were taking a long road trip without one, you'd likely wander aimlessly at some point. The same principle applies. We need a leader who delivers directions in a way that takes the needs and personalities of group members into account. Such leaders must be agreeable without being pushovers.
So those are the personality traits - emotional competence, conscientiousness, and the right mix of extraversion, decisiveness and agreeableness - that are conducive to collaborative leadership. But what about traits that might make it difficult for person to succeed in this kind of role? There are two that stand out.
Individuals who rank quite high on the scales for narcissism and neuroticism can be inward-facing rather than outward-facing. They can be easily slighted, impulsive, and highly anxious. And they can exhibit a wide range of moods. Such behavior can pollute or even destroy the kind of environment companies need to unleash the productivity of collaborative teams.
By administering a reliable personality assessment such as those developed (collaboratively) by Traitify, companies can better understand whether existing managers or potential hires are well suited to collaborative leadership. To see for yourself how it works, just ask for a demo.