How Women Leaders Can Succeed at Collaborative Leadership

Published: May 31, 2019
Modified: May 29, 2020


Collaborative leadership is a great tool when used correctly and in the right situations. Knowing when to collaborate, what steps to take, and how to inspire collaboration in yourself and others is part of being a successful woman leader.

A “soft skill” that can bring solid results

Although it’s often labeled a “soft skill,” collaboration is a competency that can affect the bottom line of a project or company, says Anne Loehr, senior vice president at the Center for Human Capital Innovation and an AMA facilitator.

“You can have the best technically skilled person, but if they don’t know how to collaborate, if they don’t know how to have emotional intelligence, if they don’t know how to communicate, they’re going to be a drain on the team,” Loehr says.

Here are some tips Loehr suggests for collaborative leadership:

Defining what it is. “Collaborative leadership…is practicing the skills of collaboration across a group of people,” Loehr says. The leader has obtained consensus and buy-in from her group. They understand what the goal is, they are engaged in achieving it, and they’re clear on what their roles are in that effort. “True collaboration is I’m cooperating fully with all the people around me and we’re getting everything that we want,” she says.

Learning the process. Collaborative leadership is a “multistep process of people working together for a common purpose,” Loehr says. These steps include developing a collaborative mindset, identifying the right opportunities for collaboration, picking the right people to collaborate with, identifying the goal of the group, and defining each person’s role.

Determining when collaboration isn’t needed. Collaboration can be expensive in terms of time, resources, and energy, and a good leader should realize when to employ direct, top-down leadership instead. “Sometimes, we just need a decision and we need to move on,” Loehr says. “If the house is on fire, we’re not going to collaborate on which way to get out the door.”

But collaborative leadership should be used when the stakes on a project are high, or if the situation is really complex. “Collaborative leadership is going to be more beneficial when we need a new product, or when we need a new direction for an organization,” Loehr explains.

Watching out for derailers. In general, women are socialized to embrace collaboration more than men do, Loehr says. Men tend to approach teamwork as “good players”—"knowing what your position and your role is and playing it well,” she notes—while women may think being a good player means that you help everybody to achieve the collaboration. “Women absolutely carry the burden of collaboration a lot more than men do in terms of what they think they need to do and the energy they put toward it,” Loehr says.

When members of the team resist collaborating, it can derail the project. Other potential derailers, according to AMA’s Collaborative Leadership Skills seminar, are when a group gets locked into a single frame of mind (groupthink), is dominated by a few aggressive members, or agrees to something out of politeness that no one really wants to do.

Collaborative leadership is “a really good tool, but it’s certainly not the only tool,” Loehr says. If someone uses one style or the other all the time, “that makes them poor leaders, because they don’t know how to switch when appropriate,” she says. There are benefits to both leadership styles.

When collaboration is called for, and when everyone participates in the collaboration, it can bring about great results, she says.