3.3 Facilitating collective leadership
You will now explore ideas that would help facilitate collective leadership in an organisation. In particular, you will focus on space, listening and dialogue.
Space corresponds to the way in which a specific organisation is spatially organised (Dale & Burrell, 2007). For example, traditional offices would provide an individual office for each employee. The individual office or desk symbolises how each employee is supposed to work, mainly on their own, and accordingly how they would also be evaluated individually. Traditionally, the office doors are closed in order to prevent co-workers from listening to conversations and being able to look inside them. This represents an ‘exclusive’ status symbol. This type of office space could be related to the fact that workers need to have confidential discussions, and this would make sense, for example, for doctors in a public organisation context who need to have confidential discussions with their patients. Collective leadership can be hindered by this type of spatial organisation because collaborative work is made more difficult.
It can be noted that a contemporary phenomenon such as digital space – the space created by interactions through digital technologies such as personal computers and the internet – can foster collective leadership by allowing employees to interact in a decentralised way through online meetings and emails.
In contrast to individual office spaces, open-plan offices are supposed to facilitate collective leadership. These are more contemporary work spaces than traditional offices, which commonly used individual and separated offices.
In open plan offices, it is easier to see if a co-worker is present or not and if they are busy. As a result, the intention is that workers are supposed to interact more on an everyday basis. Although it is not automatic, this can be one of the elements that facilitates collective leadership. Of course, it can have negative effects by creating a form of both distraction and peer surveillance.
An alternative illustration of the use of space is provided by co-working spaces in which a variety of workers – either self-employed or from different organisations come to work physically closely to each other, while not being affiliated to the same institution. This brings about a sense of collaboration or sharing (Butcher, 2018), for instance, through bringing about fruitful conversations between workers from different backgrounds.
Sharing the same space should create the potential for more relations and innovative ideas to emerge through co-user interactions (Cunliffe & Eriksen, 2011). It can be noted that co-working spaces tend to be associated with entrepreneurship, which mostly exists in the private sector context, although there is also not-for-profit social entrepreneurship.
The capacity for collective leadership on an everyday basis is related to listening. If individuals – including the ones in senior positions – are unable to listen to other members of the organisation, collaboration is impossible. This is because listening is not only about influencing followers and thereby using them instrumentally; it is also about being empathic and considering them as people. Alvesson and Sveningsson argue that listening and chatting are essential to leadership as:
People feel more respected, visible and less anonymous, and included in teamwork. Rather than certain acts being significant in themselves, it is their being done by managers that gives them a special, emotional value beyond their everyday significance. Leadership is conceptualized as the extra-ordinarization of the mundane.
This ‘extra-ordinarization of the mundane’ means that being listened to may enable followers to feel recognised by their managers as well as forming an emotional attachment to their work (arguably another way of culturally controlling employees). Accordingly, this allows them to feel that they have a value for the organisation and thereby leads them to become more confident (and committed) on an everyday basis. Organisations can create a culture of listening, for instance, through consultations or other formal or informal ways for employees to share their views.
Facilitating collective leadership can be brought about by dialogue. Individual leaders listening to their followers can be beneficial but perhaps the most value lies when dialogue contributes to the creation of a leaderful organisation in which ‘members determine together what needs to be done and how to do it’ (Raelin, 2011, p. 204). The performing of dialogues involves disrupting hierarchical control for more fluid organisational processes, in which boundaries between managers and non-managers become blurred, at least at times.
Activity 10 Reflecting on collective leadership
This activity will allow you to reflect on the realities that facilitate collective leadership. This is opposed to representations of leaders as being only a single person making all the decisions without listening to anyone else.
Describe your working environment in terms of space – including digital space (that is to say, the space constituted by online processes including platforms and online meetings) – and assess if it facilitates collective leadership. Use the text box to note your thoughts and then compare with the feedback provided.
‘I work in an open-plan office. I share my immediate spatial environment with two co-workers. This favours some interaction and collaboration on an everyday basis and therefore some sense of collective leadership. I do not share space in the same way with the rest of my co-workers as there are walls of around 1.8 metres around my immediate spatial work environment. However, there is still a sense of interaction as I know if they are around, which might lead me to have a conversation in person instead of sending an email, for instance, or have a meeting in the café. The downside is the fact that in an open office noise circulates which makes concentration more difficult.’
Listening is another element that facilitates collective leadership as it is linked to dialogue. Provide an example of listening that facilitated collective leadership, either in your current organisation or in a past organisation you have worked for. If you cannot find such an example, describe a specific boundary to listening in your current organisation. Use the text box to note your thoughts and compare with the feedback provided.
‘In my previous organisation, I had to take an administrative leadership role which involved me learning new tasks, such as being able to understand a new organisational structure and explain it to other people. I shared the same office as the person who was formally in charge of this role. He was able to listen to all my questions about the role and helped me understand what I was supposed to do. Without the ability to listen to this co-worker, the organisational processes would have been disrupted as I would have been unable to effectively perform this leadership task.’
Can you recommend a way to improve dialogue in your organisation? Do you think it would be different in a not-for-profit organisation or charity? If you do not have any examples to draw from, search for relevant information on Oxfam or Greenpeace. Use the text box to note your thoughts and compare with the feedback provided.
‘In one of my previous organisations, senior managers took decisions without communicating about the decision-making process, which created distrust among employees. It would have been beneficial to create a situation of trust in order to take decisions collectively. Consultations could have been organised. Ideally, it would have been interesting to involve employees in strategic decisions through implementing the ideas coming from consultations. Realistically though, this would have required a change in the governance structure of the organisation, which had a formal hierarchy and limited accountability for senior managers. It is also necessary to create a culture of transparency and dialogue in such contexts.’