Collaborative leadership: What it is and why it works so well for distributed teams

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
 and 
  —  
January 23, 2024
An image of a woman sitting at a desk in front of a computer smiling

Collaborative leadership is a powerful approach that hinges on teamwork, cooperation, and shared responsibility. At its core, it's about leading by involving everyone, valuing each team member’s input, and working together toward common goals.

In a collaborative leadership scenario, you wouldn’t decide everything alone — instead, you'd gather ideas from everyone involved. The central tenet is that everyone’s input matters, and you’d aim to reach a decision that reflects the collective wisdom and preferences of the group.

Similarly, collaborative leadership means inviting and respecting everyone’s opinions and expertise on company projects and initiatives. It’s not just about ‘the boss’ or one person making decisions. When teams work together, they can use different perspectives, ideas, and strengths to create new solutions.

What is collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leadership means working closely with all team members, regardless of their title or role. Under collaborative leadership, managers value employee contributions equally and make shared decisions.

Leaders who embrace a collaborative leadership style actively encourage team members to share information openly, fostering a culture of transparency and knowledge exchange. They emphasize cooperation, open communication, and collective problem-solving

Traditional leadership vs. collaborative leadership

Traditional and hierarchical leadership models generally involve ‌centralized authority and top-down decision-making. 

For instance, imagine a company that uses traditional or hierarchical leadership is considering a restructure of its marketing strategy. The leadership team unilaterally decides on the new marketing approach without input from the marketing team or other departments. The decision is then cascaded down the hierarchy, and employees are expected to execute the strategy with limited involvement in the decision-making process.

Collaborative leadership involves greater inclusivity and shared decision-making responsibilities. 

Think about the same situation above but with a collaborative leadership team: Collaborative leaders invite input from various levels of the organization. The marketing team, along with representatives from sales, customer service, and even junior staff, are involved in brainstorming sessions. Through open dialogue and collaboration, ideas are exchanged, and the team makes a collective decision. 

Core principles of collaborative leadership  

The three main principles of collaborative leadership are: 

  • Shared decision-making: Collaborative leadership means getting input from all team members so you can make informed decisions that positively impact everyone. It means you value diverse perspectives and insights and genuinely seek input and feedback on company initiatives.
  • Mutual respect and trust: Transparent and open communication is at the heart of collaborative leadership. The goal is to create an environment where team members are valued and respected. They should feel welcome to share their thoughts without fear of judgment.
  • Collective intelligence: Collaborative leaders recognize and appreciate the strengths of each team member — their unique knowledge, diverse experiences, skills, and background. They use each person’s strengths to solve problems, innovate, and achieve common goals.

Why is collaborative leadership important for distributed teams?

Distributed teams often grapple with hurdles such as communication barriers, team silos, collaboration struggles, and the inherent difficulty of fostering connections among team members scattered across different locations. These challenges can impede teamwork and put a damper on productivity. 

Collaborative leadership offers a solution to these challenges. Collaborative leadership bridges the gaps created by distance and diverse time zones by focusing on communication and understanding. Managers can create an inclusive culture where team members feel valued by listening to and respecting their opinions and contributions.

Ultimately, collaborative leadership reduces the barriers distributed teams face. It makes everyone integral to the team’s shared goals and successes, regardless of their physical location.

Benefits of collaborative leadership in distributed teams

In a collaborative leadership environment, the benefits extend beyond productivity and efficiency to the team’s overall well-being. 

Improves team cohesion and morale

Team cohesion refers to the sense of unity and camaraderie within a group, and it’s crucial for workplace success, including productivity and job satisfaction. It fosters a supportive environment where team members feel like an essential part of the team.

Collaborative leaders recognize the significance of building relationships among team members. With collaborative leadership, you can create a culture where everyone feels connected, valued, and aligned on common objectives. This sense of belonging boosts morale and encourages team members to support one another, fostering a stronger and more cohesive team dynamic.

Enhances creativity and problem-solving

Creativity and effective problem-solving are vital for innovation and overcoming challenges. Collaborative leadership helps with this by promoting an environment where different ideas converge. This approach encourages individuals to consider the big picture, emphasizing a shared vision and purpose.

Collaborative leaders thrive on harnessing diverse perspectives and expertise. This inclusive approach sparks creativity, encourages out-of-the-box thinking, and results in successful solutions to complex problems.

A study from the Harvard Business Review illustrates this. An airline company had customer service problems. Part inspections took eight hours — very time-consuming. Since the company fosters a culture of collaborative leadership, an administrative assistant could identify the underlying issue and suggest a creative solution. The chief technology officer turned the idea into reality and cut inspection time by 85%. Without collaborative leadership, the administrative assistant might not have been given the chance to share her solution with the team.

Reduces feelings of isolation among team members

Feelings of isolation can negatively impact remote team members. Factors like reduced social interaction, limited visibility, and recognition, and communication challenges can contribute to these feelings of isolation.  

One study found that feeling isolated from work and colleagues made people less satisfied with their work-from-home experience. But the study also found a simple solution: The more support and connection respondents perceived from their organization, the more likely they were to report higher levels of happiness and satisfaction working remotely.

Collaborative leadership actively combats feelings of isolation by acknowledging and addressing the challenges of remote work. Through clear communication, inclusivity, and cultivating a supportive work environment, leaders can mitigate feelings of isolation in distributed teams.

Increases employee engagement

Engagement signifies the level of commitment and enthusiasm team members have toward their work. And high engagement generally means higher productivity and profitability, according to research by Gallup. 

Collaborative leadership boosts engagement by actively involving individuals in decision-making, valuing their contributions, and creating a platform for open dialogue. When team members feel heard and valued, they become more engaged and motivated.

Use collaboration tools to drive success through collaborative leadership

In the enduring landscape of distributed work, collaborative leadership helps remove challenges, such as isolation and communication barriers, and enhances team cohesion, creativity, and engagement. Fostering a collaborative environment isn’t just an idea; it’s the cornerstone of success for distributed teams.

It’s important to equip your team with tools that amplify collaboration and teamwork. 

Mural, a visual work platform, offers hundreds of free templates and resources designed to unite teams, provide a clear overview of projects, and streamline decision-making. 

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.

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