Is “Collaborative Leadership” Really a Good Thing?

Collaboration is the word of the day, with everyone touting its virtues. I’ve never been big on it because I’ve always found it’s best to assign work to individuals, rather than teams, and then to hold each individual accountable.

A recent piece in Forbesshows how out of style I am in my work preferences. In “8 Tips for Developing Collaborative Leadership in the Workplace,” William Craig gives pointers on how to make your company more team-oriented. It sounds awful to me.

His advice includes tips on how to “put the emphasis on teams,” how to “share ownership,” and how to “share the work of dreaming.” Idealistically speaking, I see the virtue of teams. In theory, you pool the resources of many individuals, rather than just one, as you work in concert toward a shared goal. Realistically speaking, it doesn’t work so easily. As we all know, not everyone in a “team” pulls his or her weight, and there is tendency toward group think, rather than original and daring thinking. No one wants to offer an idea others in the group might not like, and when an idea is offered up, it often quickly gets watered down so it can be made acceptable to everyone in the group.

The sharing of ownership is particularly worrisome to me. I keep getting reminded of the lesson I learned about emergencies in the Girl Scouts (I can’t remember which badge the lesson counted toward). The mother leading the session instructed us that in an emergency, you shouldn’t just shout, “Help!” If you do, then everyone will look around, assuming someone else will help. Instead, she told us to point to a particular person in the crowd, make sure you get their attention, and then give him or her—an individual person, not a crowd—the specific instruction to do whatever is necessary, like calling 911. 

That lesson applies to non-emergency situations in the workplace. If you give a group of people an assignment, there is a good chance no one in the group will get it done, assuming someone else in the group will take care of it. But when you break an assignment down into manageable parts, assigning specific parts to specific people, with each person given a specific due date and specific instructions, your results will be much better. Ownership of work, like ownership of action in an emergency, is essential. 

Another hazard of a team culture is the tendency of managers in that culture to send head-scratching e-mails with vague directives to large numbers of people. It’s akin to willy-nilly throwing a series of balls in the air, hoping someone manages to catch one or two of them. When the culture focuses on the work of the individual, rather than the nebulous “team,” that tendency becomes less likely. Managers know they are expected to give specific, individual assignments, rather than sending hazy group e-mails with hard-to-decipher plans of “action.”

Yet another peril of team-oriented workplaces is the compulsion to include as many people as possible in communications. Instead of limiting e-mails to the least number of people necessary—thereby keeping the task as simple and streamlined as possible—the “team” player will send that same e-mail to up to a dozen “stakeholders.” You could make the argument that innumerable people will be impacted by even the most minor decisions, but how important is it really for all of those people to be included in communications about projects? And if you include them, how much more complicated and difficult to complete will those projects become?

An inability to trust one’s own instincts and ideas is an additional consequence of “collaborative” leadership. Leaders are leaders because they lead. They may gather information from many people as background research, but, being leaders, it’s up to them to make the final decision. A compulsively collaborative culture can make leaders neurotic about pursuing ideas they come up with on their own. It makes it hard to be a visionary. Without visionaries, we’ll have far fewer bold, next-big-thing ideas. 

I have no desire to “share the work of dreaming.” It’s joyful to have a private inner-life where you imagine the possibilities for the future. You may choose to share those dreams with others in your organization, but when you do, be sure to explain how the dreams will come to fruition, including what will be expected of each individual on “the team.”

Any other sourpusses out there like me, who have little taste for collaboration, and see the greater importance of assigning work to individuals, who are held accountable for getting that work done?

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