Collaborative Leadership in a Virtual World

April 28, 2020

Collaborative Leadership in a Virtual World

As an organizational psychologist, I’m curious about the role of leaders in a virtual work world with uncertain futures. Leaders are looked to for guidance during these uncharted times, but assuming we have to revert to command-and-control leadership to get everything done is wrong. Collaborative leadership is desperately needed at this moment in history.   

Why Collaborative Leadership?

Beyond the current critical need for collaborative leadership, recent research suggests it is highly in-demand. Case in point: Millennials make up approximately 40 percent of the workforce and they view leadership as the means to empower others. This is having significant spill-over effects and influencing the views of other generations; the workforce is looking for leaders to empower, serve and enable collaboration—not tell us what to do and how to do it.  

Jay Sanderson, Solution Consulting Director for Infor, a cloud software company based in New York City, suggests that a leader’s job should be to “…remove obstacles preventing your team from being successful, not give them a to do list. Ultimately, this enables a team to be more self-directed and empowering them to ask for assistance. I want my team to understand asking for assistance is seen as a strength not as weakness—we move ahead when we collaborate.”  

Science is behind collaborative leadership. Collaboration boosts intrinsic motivation resulting in team members working on tasks longer, 64 percent in fact, and increasing positive emotions. Positive emotions are going to be critical in the face of this crisis and shift to a virtual work world. When positive emotions outweigh negative emotions, our brains can more effectively handle complex and/or novel tasks as we are more open to new ideas and tend to approach things with a growth mindset.  We need leaders who can nurture collaboration. 

What Is Collaborative Leadership?

Collaborative leadership breaks down hierarchical silos to bring executives, managers, employees and even customers together. Everyone has a say and through collaborative efforts new efficiencies are achieved. This is already being realized by collaborative organizations, even those directly in the crosshairs of the current crisis. 

Dr. Mark Mitchell, Chief Accounting Officer for Frontier Airlines, is helping Frontier weather this storm by not only relying on his financial expertise, but also his deep expertise in soft skills. 

“As with everyone in the airline industry, we are facing unprecedented changes and the people at Frontier are rising to the challenge with equally unprecedented levels of collaboration,” said Mitchell. “Our senior leadership team has empowered everyone to be more involved in working across functional boundaries and are removing obstacles to increase efficiencies in this ‘all hands-on deck’ situation. It is working—everyone is chipping in to help not only Frontier, but each other as well. We can weather this storm by working together.”

Nurturing Collaboration

Here are seven proven collaborative leadership tactics, for both face-to-face and virtual work:

  1. Relationship Practices. Without building relationships, collaboration will fail. This means providing every person you work with the respect and dignity each human being deserves. In a virtual setting, make sure everyone has the technology needed to enable relationship building (technology with good data connection and a video camera). Take time to see each other with video, don’t just dial in with audio. Seeing each other’s faces makes virtual meetings feel human. And, if you have pets or kids running around in the background, it makes you more relatable, which enhances relationships further. 
  2. Common Goal and Purpose. Often times, collaboration breaks down because individuals dig in their heels for personal gains. You must help your team take a step back and look at the bigger picture to see how all individual goals are likely to roll up to a shared common goal. Now, you have highlighted mutual purpose. As the leader, you need to help your team members connect individual goals with higher level goals. In a virtual setting, make sure you are consistently referencing these linkages, so they are not lost in the absence of psychical connectedness. 
  3. Be the Model. Show your team you are being collaborative—excessive modeling is needed if the virtual mode is new. Model the behaviors you want to see in your team.  Humans efficiently acquire knowledge and skill via social learning (watching and modeling others). This best translates into long-term behavioral change if the model is trustworthy. If you have had success with Steps 1 and 2, this will be fruitful—your team will see you as trustworthy because you have invested in relationship building and connecting individual goals with higher level organizational goals.   
  4. Gifting. As a leader in a virtual setting, one of your first gifts you provide your team should be your time. In a virtual setting, set up open-screen periods where your team members can drop in and simply chat—work, weather, sports, whatever. Also have a standing invite for a team-member to schedule one-on-one time with you. If someone schedules one-on-one time, give the person your full attention when meeting. Talk to them about their goals, hopes, aspirations and fears. Share your thoughts as well—be vulnerable and humble. It will help them open up and drive more collaboration. You will discover what drives each team member and be better prepared to continue building relationships and rewarding collaboration.
  5. Supporting Community. Leader support is extremely powerful and significantly drives employee morale, performance and well-being. The leader sets the tone for building community support via development of supportive norms where team members feel psychologically safe. Co-create a support contract with your team by identifying a set of guidelines to drive and reinforce mutual support. 
  6. Role and Task Clarification. As a collaborative leader, you need to clarify each member’s role based upon member expertise. When moving to a virtual setting, this will require some tweaking as members will have different strengths in a virtual world versus a physical world. Then, allow the members to work on clarifying work tasks. This will build more collaboration, strengthen relationships, and allow tasks to be accomplished more effectively. 
  7. Eat Humble Pie. At the beginning and end of the day, you are just another person putting in a good day’s work. Egos have no place in collaborative leadership; if you are concerned with your ego, you are going to fail. Leave your ego at the door (or under the screen for virtual connections).  Also, when you screw up, and you will screw up, admit your mistake, apologize, ask for clarification and move forward.    

You will need to work on these guidelines to make sure they align with your team in a virtual world. You should also exercise caution as with anything new at work, there will be some bumps along the way. Be open, over communicate and don’t delay—we are moving forward with a virtual work world whether you like it or not—so make sure you are evolving as a virtual leader as well. 

Sanderson has some advice to help: “I calculate a rough amount of time I would spend in an office environment interacting other employees—how many times would I walk past their office and wave, bump into each other in the breakroom, join for a meeting to discuss a project, have a quick conversation, or even grab lunch? I work hard to recreate a high percentage of those moments virtually. I know if I spend more time caring about my employees, I don’t have to worry about them caring about our organization.”

Mitchell adds, “I have found that it is really beneficial to continue having one-on-one conversations when working remotely. I am available to my team via a virtual open-door policy. While most drop in to discuss work, it is not uncommon for some to simply want to chat. Those conversations about life is where the magic happens—it reinforces, and can even strengthen, relationships that are often lost in the virtual world that is usually laser-focused on getting tasks done” said Mitchell. 

While we are working in a new virtual world, never forget that what gives us strength is our profound humanity and that is still the backbone of our organizations. 

The Authors: 

Craig Wallace is an organizational psychologist and currently the Department Head of Management in the College of Business at Clemson University.