One doesn’t have to look far to see prime examples of the failure to collaborate. Let’s face it: if you are a leader of power and control, and your team is nothing more to you than a set of tools you use to carry out your goals regardless of their perspectives or inputs, then collaboration isn’t even in your vocabulary, much less your team. If people are tools, this is not your article.
When your culture lacks collaboration, it is often because team members’ ideas are shot down, disrespected, or never even solicited in the first place. When that is the case, people tend to approach their leaders looking for answers to questions they are more than capable of answering, because they are either afraid to make the decision themselves or they’ve been taught their opinion doesn’t matter anyway. I may be oversimplifying a little, but not by much. You get the point.
When your team comes to you with questions, those are nothing less than opportunities to engage, inspire, build a culture of collaboration and cultivate their growth — not necessarily opportunities to answer. Some people put a great deal of emphasis on the importance of being able to answer a question, to be the wise sage, which can come from a good place. We want to offer good counsel to our team when they come to us with questions. After all, isn’t that why we get the big bucks? But here’s the problem: just because we say it, that doesn’t make it right — but our position might imply otherwise. Worse, it squashes any insight or creativity your team has to offer. If you just blurt out the answer without any engagement, the message they get is that their opinion doesn’t matter — so why try to solve the problem at all?
To foster an environment of real collaboration, of real engagement in an organization, of real problem solving — we as leaders can’t just have the answer. Collaboration means we work together, and we use all our perspectives. It means we are each respected in the process and are free to contribute. Telling isn’t collaborating.
Now, does that mean you never have an answer, never tell them what to do? No. Sometimes they’re really stuck, or your perspective, for whatever reason, supersedes theirs. But when that occurs in a collaborative environment, people tend to respond well, and respect the seriousness or gravitas of your situation or position. That’s when you have to be discerning. You can keep on giving answers, but then you’re not cultivating a culture of problem-solving, risk-taking, decision-making or growth. The “training wheels” of non-stop, direct, mono-directional telling have gotta to come off for a team to mature. I encourage you to allow your teams to take risks and sometimes fail so that together you may learn to collaborate and work toward better outcomes in the future.
Steven Fulmer was the opening keynote speaker at the O∆K’s 48th Biennial Convention and Centennial Celebration held in June 2014 in Lexington, Virginia. He is the author of “Leadership Just Got Personal” and his website may be found at stevenfulmer.com.