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Marcie Hopkins, U of U Health.
Four Things Collaborative Leaders Do Well
When it comes to work, collaboration is key, but do we really know what good collaboration looks like or how it functions? Director of Organizational Development Chris Fairbank shares the importance of investing in collaboration and how to sustain a culture of effective collaboration.

Case Study

Amanda was relatively new to the organization when she was asked to take the lead on a project related to a system that her team managed. She was tasked with salvaging this troubled system that was used by a handful of different user groups. These groups all had different thoughts on the usefulness of the system, and how it should be governed and managed. Amanda pulled people together to create collective understanding and included them as decisions were made on how to make the best use of the system. She also created a governance group consisting of representatives of each user group to ensure that problems and issues were promptly brought up and dealt with, and giving each group a voice that hadn’t been there before.  


ollaboration is a word that’s used quite often at the workplace, but how many of us really understand what’s involved in collaborating effectively? Although this is a critical skill for leaders to learn, most of us don’t get much formal training or coaching regarding what makes collaboration with another group successful. Collaboration is defined as “two or more people or groups working together for a common goal” which sounds simple, but each brings our own wants and needs to the table, which can muddy the collaborative waters quickly. 

Why invest in collaboration?

Effective collaboration is important for any organization, but it’s particularly important in health care. Collaboration done well in a hospital setting means better patient experiences, fewer errors, increased efficiencies, and the list goes on. Collaborating well allows us to “stay on top of our game” as an organization, drawing upon our very best ideas and strategies.  

Collaboration as culture

Our WE CARE leadership model includes collaboration as an important part of our culture. For our organization to grow with continued success, effectively working across team lines isn’t optional. WE CARE asks us to focus specifically on a few things to ensure we are working together in a way that will benefit all involved.  

Consider organizational needs when making decisions. As leaders, we all want to take care of our people and make things easier for them, which is often reflected in many of the decisions we make. When we make these choices however, we need to be aware of the impact that they will have on other teams and departments. There may be times when a decision that will be best for our people is not the decision that will be best for the organization as a whole. If we see this, we need to be leaders that adjust rather than plow forward.

Discourage “us vs. them” thinking. We are an intricate and complex organization with many groups and moving parts. There will be times when the goals, processes, or methods of our teams seem to conflict with other teams in the organization. When this happens, it can be easy to fall into a negative relationship. We may need to pause, gather our team to work through the conflicting points privately, then move on and work together publicly. As leaders, we need to help our people rise above these disagreements and find healthy ways of working with other groups.  

Involve others in plans and decisions that affect them. While not all work plans can be open to the input of others, there are many that could. As you put together goals and plans as leaders, think through the people that will be impacted by them, and question whether or not their input could be useful.  As you include others in thinking problems and issues through, the quality of your plans and decisions will increase, as will the level of buy-in by those affected.  

Four strategies for collaborative leadership

As a leader, you are in a unique position to influence how we collaborate at our organization. The following strategies can help you ensure you’re setting the proper tone in your area when it comes to working with others. These best practices will also increase the chances that your collaborative initiatives will be successful.   

1. Focus on authentic leadership.

Collaborative leaders communicate openly and honestly, steering clear of passive aggressiveness. They don’t let things become personal when working with another group doesn’t go as planned. They strive for solutions that are in the interest of the organization, even if their own team might suffer a bit in the short term. Over time, they develop a reputation as someone in the organization who others want to work with.  

2. Be transparent with your decision-making.

While we must certainly use good judgement with this one, collaborative leaders generally let others behind the scenes in their decision-making process. We have all experienced the frustration that comes with decisions made above us that we just don’t understand. When leaders share their thinking before or after making big decisions, it creates trust on and between teams. 

3. View resources as instruments of action.

Sometimes it’s easy for a leader to become a bit territorial with the resources that have been entrusted to them. Collaborative leaders view talents, time, money, and tools as instruments of action and not as possessions. When leaders understand and practice this, it opens the door for partnering with others in innovative ways.  

4. Set the expectation for your people.

A leader can build collaborative capability within their organization by creating clear expectations that working with others is part of how a group works. Creating shared goals, recognizing people who reach out to others, and discussing collaboration openly are great ways to encourage cooperative behavior.  

Don’t give up on collaboration

Even when these strategies are applied, collaboration can be harder than it seems. There are many ways our good intentions can go sideways when collaborating, and it takes time and experience for leaders to learn how to keep things on track. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t always work out. In the end, a product of collaboration is almost always better than what any one team or individual can do on their own, so the effort in developing these leadership skills is well worth it.  


“Collaborative leadership: it’s good to talk,” (British Journal of Healthcare Management, 2013)

Originally published October 2022


Chris Fairbank

Director, Organizational Development, University of Utah Health

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