Why Collaborative Leadership is Central to the Future of Work

August 15, 2016

leadership with a magnifier on top

There is lots of attention being paid these days to ethnic and religious differences, to income inequality, to generational differences, and to social and cultural polarization.

Recently I have been thinking a great deal about millennials as representatives of a vague but vastly transformed future. Many observers and pundits find that future exciting and encouraging, while others find it depressing.

No matter what you think about that future, by 2020 (just four years from now!) close to half of the workforce will be what we currently call “Millennials” – people born between about 1982 and 2004.

That definition comes from researchers Neil Howe and William Straus, the authors of an important book on the future of work – and life – titled The Fourth Turning; it was actually first published in 1997, but I’ve just picked it up again and find its insights just as timely and actually even more compelling today than when I first discovered it.

Certainly there are massive differences between the work and personal experiences that younger workers have had growing up, and the experiences that those of us “of a certain age” with gray hair, or no hair, can recall. However, when the Millennials dominate the workforce in the 2020’s they will range in age from their late teens to their late thirties.

It’s safe to assume that most of the older Millennials will by then be married, raising children, and just as preoccupied with many of the same kinds of parenting, social, and environmental issues that we older generations fret about today.

But no matter how old you are, you have to be painfully aware of challenges and conflicts all over the world. Although there are obvious ethnic and regional differences, jet airplanes, television, and the Internet/social media have combined to create a truly global – if unsettled – village.

Technology has connected us with each other and with other “neighborhoods” in the global village in ways that we are still struggling to understand.

On the one hand, we often seem to depend more on email and text messages today than on real-time personal conversations, whether they are face-to-face or by telephone (or Skype, or any of the many other online collaborative technologies that we now use on a daily basis).

On the other hand, we are more aware of natural disasters and other events both tragic and celebratory no matter where in the world they occur. And the workforce of today and tomorrow has grown up during a time of immense and sometimes violent political conflict all over the world (including, of course, right here in the United States). I believe this awareness of the fragility of life has driven many people back to basics; family, friends, nature, art, and recreation have become increasingly important to the quality of life.

It seems clear that our general awareness of the injustices and suffering on just about every continent, along with other global challenges, directly impacts our attitudes toward authority figures and our expectations about how we want to be treated in the workplace.

Moreover, the boundaries between the workplace and that bigger world are far more porous than they have ever been. It’s now incredibly easy to sit in your office at work and exchange emails or phone calls with family members, caretakers, medical care professionals, investment advisors, and your car mechanic. You can order books, DVDs, home furniture, food, and clothing online, or pay your bills, during your lunch hour.

Of course you can also read and respond to your work emails from your living room, the airport, the train station, or in bed just before you turn out the light. The workplace isn’t an isolated, insulated environment any more and all of us are part of a wide network of relationships and commitments that affect the work we do every day – just as our work affects our personal lives.

Why is this important? Because our experiences outside of work have a far more direct impact on how we work and how we relate to our colleagues today than they ever did in the industrial era. It used to be that punching the time clock at the start of the work day meant turning off your personality and your individuality.

Now, it’s just the opposite. Your employer and your work colleagues depend on you to express yourself on the job. That’s what knowledge work is all about: sharing ideas, being creative, and applying your unique knowledge to the task at hand.

People now come into work expecting to be part of a community, to be listened to, and to be respected and recognized for what they know and what they do. After all, that’s what they experience with their family and friends; why should it be any different at work?Women With Megaphones Shouting Isolated

And yet many of the people I talk to these days are deeply concerned that “political correctness” in the workplace is preventing us from being open and honest with each other. The level of polarization and disagreements among our business and political leaders seems so great that we often avoid being candid in the workplace in order to maintain at least a surface harmony and not let those differences interfere with our work responsibilities.

What is your experience? Are you able to be open and candid about your ideas and values with colleagues, or do you feel stifled and somehow a different person at work than you are outside the workplace? Have you discovered any “new rules” for overcoming the polarization that seems so commonplace these days?

These thoughts are adapted from Chapter One of Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age (link is to the book website). The first chapter lays out many of the reasons why I believe we desperately need a new kind of leadership today, focused far less on command and control and much more on collaboration, knowledge sharing, and joint problem-solving.

Call me today at +1 50.558.1434 for a free 20-minute initial conversation about your collaboration challenges; I can show you how to overcome core differences in order to leverage all the talent in your organization.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Buss August 16, 2016 at 4:53 am

It is interesting to read your essay on collaborative leadership shortly after hearing an interview with Gary Johnson. He also speaks of leadership in terms of finding answers and learning. He also presents an optimistic view of America in contrast to the polarized positions that politics and thus the media put forward daily. Is the polarization in the workplace caused by focusing on the hype? I’d be curious to hear your take on the political situation, since it surely bears on the future of work.

I’m in Germany, and can’t understand why, after kicking the king out to found the country over 200 years ago, would anyone vote for dynastic rule (Clinton, Bush). Equally mystifying is the fascination with a candidate more interested in addressing the public rather than addressing any issue.

Also, we aren’t seeing a politicization of the workplace here.


Bob Leek August 16, 2016 at 8:44 am

As a Gen-X leader, I find your article about Millennials very relevant as we see the continued transformation of the workplace. However, each generation has had its impact on work place culture – just look at the newsreel footage provided each decade that attempts to summarize what “that decade” was like. The 50’s with their rows of desks and men in suits, the 60’s with the introduction of casual attire, the 70’s with the move from industrial to service, and so on, decade after decade. The newsreel footage surely being developed (probably through my Facebook reminders feed) for the 2010’s may show the unrest and civil discord worldwide and attempt to link that to the impact on the workplace.

An inclusive workplace, according to an article I have been using titled “8 Traits of an Inclusive Culture”, from Andrew Tavin, October 2010, is one in which an organization places high value on the uniqueness that each individual brings, and that the individual feels a sense of belongingness to the organization for which they work. That means leaders need to cultivate BOTH appreciation for the individual by the organization AND create an environment where individuals feel a high sense of belonging to a greater whole.

The reality of the current world that each of us is subject to on a daily basis outside of work must have an influence on who we are as an individual at work. We can’t just turn that off. Millennials may be even more prone to that influence, according to many studies, but each individual, no matter their generational label, should be afforded the opportunity to be themselves at work.

Bringing all of those “selves” into a collective whole through collaboration, dialogue, and creating solutions together IS a role of leadership. It also won’t happen by accident. Intentionally addressing the BOTH / AND of individuals and organization will create better outcomes than an alternative of just letting the organization go along, especially in this time of so much unrest and turmoil.


Jennifer Verive August 23, 2016 at 8:51 am

What heartening news, from the original article and the comments!

From my perspective, it’s about time that one can be fully who one is at work. With this freedom, workplaces can finally deliver on the experience that most of them say they offer in the first place–it should not only be about the worker fitting into the organization, but the organization fitting the individual. When I teach this, a foundational organizational construct, I often have to give the caveat that for many, this is a pipe dream–that any job is frequently more important than one with proper fit.

So, hoorah! What a proper and useful focus for leadership!

When the workplace is truly a place where we can be who we are, then there is hope that work and workplaces can truly be fulfilling, even with jobs that may seem mundane or actually be mundane. Sure, we all have flaws–and life is about fixing them, whether they arise in relationship, school, or work. In the past, workplaces have often protected the status quo OR were subjugated to strong sanctions to force compliance. Perhaps, if we are allowed to be who we are, fully and with flaws, there will be room to grow and collaborate in a more positive, compassionate way.

Ever hopeful!


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