Managers, Leaders, and Collaboration

Rather than quote case studies on this, I prefer to share a few random thoughts on what has proven to be effective for me and the teams that I have worked with. To unlock collaboration, you must abandon team meetings. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it works.

Setting up regular meetings (like the ones that generally set the tone in most projects) run according to the text books of ‘best’ practices, sets the expectation that collaboration beyond your immediate accountability is constrained to only that time set aside for the meeting. When we provide structure beyond just delegations of authority, or accountability for delivery, we hinder performance and encourage individualistic approaches to dealing with problems facing a project, or a team. In other words, we inadvertently push the agenda of the hero rather than the team and we create the perfect climate and culture in which heroes thrive. Getting recognition for your efforts in a team setting of the type described here is a further catalyst to encourage lone-ranger behaviour rather than creating an environment conducive towards collaboration.

Leadership by facilitation is a powerful skill that can unlock potential in teams and individuals in ways that no amount of coaching or mentoring will be able to equal. The reason why this is seldom practiced is because most leaders are managers first, before they are leaders. In more than two years of running a software testing team, among other functions, we have yet to have a real team meeting. Even when we had ‘team meetings’, it was ad hoc and focused on a specific concern or issue of alignment that needed to be addressed, rather than having a team meeting for the sake of meeting with the team. Regular informal interaction between team members that is focused on clearly defined objectives always yields much better results than dictating who is responsible for what. How often haven’t you seen bright individuals recede simply because they felt overwhelmed by the heroes and bullies in the team?

Consider this. When you have a team meeting, the agenda usually includes items focused on providing feedback on outstanding actions, allocating new issues to someone for resolution/action, or providing general feedback to staff about what has transpired since the last meeting. All those agenda items confirm only one thing to me. Team meetings are focused on the allocation of individual responsibilities rather than team goals, but are disguised to look as if it’s a team effort that is taking place. To prove this, look around the table at your next meeting and see how many people adopt a sheepish grin when asked about whether or not they read the minutes from the last meeting?

The moment we avoid establishing routine interactions, we set the scene for spontaneity. I work with various guiding principles in mind that inform the way I engage with others. One of it states that every individual is competent until proven otherwise. Another says that every individual is a mature adult until proven wrong. And yet another favourite is that every individual has an innate need to be recognised for their contribution while being allowed sufficient latitude to employ their personal flair of creativity in the way they arrive at the set objectives. These principles always foster a culture of mutual respect, accountability, and transparency. People clam up and become territorial when they feel like their significance is threatened or questioned. That significance is often challenged if they have reason to believe that their competence is being doubted or questioned.

More often than not we don’t directly challenge anyone’s significance or competence, but the way in which we trust them, guide them, allow them to act independently, and respect the delegation of authority that we provide them with, collectively reveals how seriously we consider their input or their contribution. You’ll never be able to engage in a meaningful way if you’re managing by team meetings, because just as that sets the expectation for team members to primarily be accountable to that forum, it also sets the expectation that the manager of that team is only expected to engage meaningfully during that session as well.

The more I try to isolate collaboration and aspects relating to leadership, the more they seem to become intertwined, and perhaps in that there is much truth as well. A manager will be prone to taking a rigid approach towards managing the outputs of a team if that is the limit of their confidence in being able to command the respect and commitment from the team. A leader on the other hand will feel much more inclined to trust, and provide principled leadership that encourages individual-level collaboration and accountability that align with the project or organisational objectives, without feeling a need to enforce their idea of how those objectives should be reached.

There is an inherent desire in every one of us to want to contribute to a greater purpose. A leader will demonstrate, and therefore share their passion for the organisational goals which in turn will inspire their subjects to aspire to contribute towards the stated goals. However, a manager will assume the role of defining the individual components required to achieve that goal, and will subsequently delegate accountability for those components and then simply expect compliance in the achievement of those goals.

Zaid Ismail

Author, life coach, and mental health activist. We need to change the narrative from disorders, illnesses, and survival to accountability, understanding, and thriving.

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