Collaboration and its discontents: Learning to share

Randall: Look, do you want to be leader of this gang?
Strutter: No, we agreed: No leader!
Randall: Right. So shut up and do as I say.
– Time Bandits (1981)

One of the biggest trends in leadership and organizational thinking these days is the theme of sharing leadership.

Shared leadership can take many forms in an organization. Some organizations adopt a fully decentralized, horizontal structure; others divide work between teams, which self-manage in more or less democratic manner, or at least offer leadership opportunities to all members; still others maintain a more or less vertical structure, but incorporate input and ideas from all sources. If you find this a bit vague and confusing, you’re not alone – sharing leadership requires attention to how decisions are made and by whom. This is by no means an easy issue to make explicit.

The vision of the workplace conjured up by the phrase “shared leadership” is an attractive one. Who wouldn’t want to work somewhere where all opinions and ideas are valued in deciding what to do? Where all are on an equal footing regardless of age or job title? Especially within social justice and/or non-profit sector, shared leadership offers the hope of avoiding the bullying, coercion, or manipulation which can arise within rigid hierarchies, creating the justice the organization seeks within its ranks as well as without.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Here at BKI we often work with organizations moving towards sharing leadership, and in so doing we’ve discovered that decentralizing and co-ordinating decision-making is fraught with its own perils and complications. It’s not just that sharing is hard (my two-year-old could tell you that), or that it creates surface-level logistical headaches. The transition from a hierarchy to a more horizontal organization invokes powerful unconscious forces which make actually sharing leadership in a meaningful way a lot harder than it looks.

But staying above the surface for a moment, from a purely logistical point of view, sharing leadership is almost always more difficult than working within a hierarchy. For one thing, differing visions of what it means to share leadership can cause conflict before any actual changes are made. For another, there’s no way, at least that we’ve discovered, to make sharing leadership more efficient than vertical decision-making. Even the more conservative forms of shared leadership – say, soliciting employee input on an initiative or a process – are simply much more time-consuming than any ‘person-at-the-top’ hierarchical decision-making model. Also, in shared leadership environments it can become difficult, even impossible, to resolve conflict at an impasse. And if an organization has retained differing levels of compensation, junior employees can come to resent the organization for asking for what might be considered more senior-level leadership work without providing senior-level pay.

As we move below the surface into the unconscious forces affecting organizations attempting shared leadership, one of the most important to understand is unconscious anxiety. Say your company produces, I don’t know, dog food. This seems like an innocuous thing, right? Dogs have got to eat, and someone has to make that food. What could possibly make you anxious about providing a vital product for man’s best friend? But what if your product gets contaminated, and Fidos across the country sicken and die? All that pain and suffering, all those heartbroken owners left behind, that would be your fault. What about the environmental impact of your product – are you polluting the air and the water just to feed a bunch of dogs? That would be your fault too. What if some other company starts making dog food that’s better and cheaper than yours and your company goes under and everyone loses their jobs? Also your fault.

This is a bit of a simplistic example, but anxiety is present in every workplace. Work which is meaningful generally involves a level of risk or potential harm, after all, which provokes anxiety around questions of who I am and of what am I capable. (And work which is meaningless provokes its own set of debilitating anxieties.) Because these are unpleasant feelings which nobody wants to experience, an organization will develop defenses against the anxieties which inevitably arise from its existence.

One of the ways an organization defends against anxieties, conscious and unconscious, is through how roles are defined and configured. If you know what you’re supposed to be doing, and everyone else knows what they’re supposed to be doing, the organization can theoretically protect itself from doing wrong, from failure, from outside attack, from whatever anxiety-producing situation it encounters, as long as everyone does their job to a minimum level of correctness. This turns the daunting task of sorting out your responsibilities towards your fellow employees, your service users, customers or stakeholders, and society as a whole into a seemingly straightforward (but also fraught) set of performance management issues. In other words, all you have to do be an acceptable person within this organization is make sure that everyone is doing their job.

But shared leadership shakes up roles, relationships, and decision-making processes. Those who normally listen and execute now have the opportunity to speak and direct, and vice versa. The manager, supervisor, director, or CEO who once stood in the role of the parent, whether for good or for ill, is now in the role of peer and collaborator – you are now working “without a net”, without someone to blame when things go wrong. Without someone to hold all the projections we like to put onto our parents and superiors. This shakes up and destabilizes the organization’s defenses against anxiety, letting all those unpleasant feelings start to bubble up to the surface.

Sharing leadership can be a great way to bring life back into a stagnating organization, to empower bored or de-authorized workers, and to create a more just and democratic workplace. But as we’ve seen, it can also create difficulties and reveal hidden ones. What do you think, what hidden anxieties and problems can shared leadership expose? And how can we manage them?

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