Collaboration: What ethical business leaders need to know

The poet and writer John Donne reminds us about collaboration: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” 

In our ever more complex and connected world his observation about collaboration applies to any business leader. Effective business leadership demands the exact opposite of being an island.

The need to collaborate shapes the top business role.  It may involve a willingness to work with competitors, other nations and governments. These may mean partnering with different types of organisations, locations or industries.

For example, the motor industry once showed little interest in batteries. Now every car maker wants to buy, or collaborate with companies offering battery know-how. The need for investment has pushed Ford and Volkswagen into a new form of collaboration.  The two biggest car makers will work together to develop electric and self-driving technology. 

Or look at what’s happening with Google. The company’s strong position in artificial intelligence creates diverse opportunities of collaborating. These include new markets such as health care, city development, governance and transport.

When Facebook decided to launch Libra, its own cryptocurrency, it could not pioneer this alone. The company therefore teamed up with various partners, including MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, Stripe, eBay, Uber, Lyft, Spotify, Coinbase, Xapo, Andreessen Horowitz, Union Square Ventures, Mercy Corps, and Women’s World Banking, among others.

These may later be joined by others. The declared Libra aim is to have 100 names to jointly make decisions over the direction of the virtual currency. For its viability Libra will depend almost entirely on an effective collaboration.

New forms of collaborative arrangements transmit ever-widening ripples of impact spawning yet more ethical questions and dilemmas. “Doing the right thing” keeps changing. See panel: Facing up to Facial Recognition.

Today any business of scale must reflect the needs of other citizens, organisations and even countries. For collaboration to work well, differing values and missions may need reconciling. .  

What is collaboration?

Some fundamental building blocks support successful collaboration. For example, being able to listen intently, finding common ground, exploring new ways of joint working and so on—see panel: “What is collaboration?”

The ethical implications from collaborations keep expanding. Some may never have entered the minds of the old style captains of industry.

For example, today’s ethical business leader must confront new realities. Such as how best to: make use of scarce resources, handle rights and responsibilities and deal with the impact of new technology such as AI.

The pace of change and complexity means collaboration can no longer remain confined to the margin of business. It has become integral to successful business performance.

Effective collaboration also involves learning and experimenting with more complex ways of getting results. For example, refining the needs of the many into solutions into winning people’s trust. This demands taking into account the ideas, values, rights and desires of others.

Business leaders therefore need a new playbook for a hyper-connected environment. This limits to what a business can achieve alone.  So now large scale businesses rely on global collaborative initiatives such as:

  • The World Business Council for Sustainable Development
  • The Coalition for Environmental Responsible Economies and Societies
  • The Global Reporting Initiative.

No matter how elaborate or sophisticated, most collaborations tend to start with two or more people or organisations working together. This may lead on to more formal integration such as a merger or acquisition.

Such joint efforts rely on establishing shared goals and vision. For example Renault SA, its partner Nissan Motor Co. and tech giant Waymo recently agreed to explore a partnership. The shared aim includes developing the use of self-driving vehicles.

Or consider the intention of the London Stock Exchange to link up with Refinity to create global exchanges and promote a data powerhouse. This collaboration is already being talked of as transforming UK Exchange.

Joint working often starts off well.  Longer term though, such efforts may end in failure.

For over 50 years Shell and Lego benefited from joint branding. With Shell graphics LEGO stamped some real-world authenticity onto its tiny race cars and gas station sets.

Meanwhile, Shell endeared itself to potential customers by appearing on the popular toys. But as LEGO matured into a global business the long-standing collaboration hit problems.

Greenpeace took exception to the joint approach. The activist group argued that it was wrong for children to play with toys displaying the name of a company irresponsibly drilling in the arctic.

In 2011 a much-watched and shared YouTube video from Greenpeace blasted the collaboration. A swift public outcry from concerned citizens and parents triggered the end of the long-running collaboration.

Shared Values

From the many failures to implement collaboration come some essentials that business leaders need to take into account. Perhaps the most vital ingredient is shared values. These will normally need to be spelled out clearly as part of any new arrangements.

Without fully shared values and a common vision of what the collaboration should achieve the whole venture will probably fail.   

For example, what seemed a winner ended in failure when Target the designer collaborated with luxury retailer Neiman Marcus. The joint working crashed due to different values, that is disagreement over what was important to their respective customers.

It is therefore vital to check with potential collaborators how they each view ethics. Both parties need to discover:

In your business or company

  • “What matters to you most?”
  • “What is considered unethical?”
  • “What written or agreed standards of professional conduct and guiding principles exist?”
  • “How do you care for your customers/clients?”
  • “How vulnerable is are you to bad practices or illegal behaviour?
  • “What is your track record in dealing with unethical behaviour or practices?”
  • “Are people incentivised to behave responsibly or ethically?”
  • “Are ethics regularly discussed or subject to ongoing training?
  • “Are some things both ethical and unethical at the same time?”

Pace of change

The changing pace of business is a strong element affecting most types of collaboration. It does this through force-feeding innovation and promoting the need for team working. Both demand an open approach to solving business challenges, including new ethical dilemmas, such as how to deal with bias in selection, or recruitment.

To cope with the pace of change depends on generating high levels of employee engagement. With these, people start to believe it’s worthwhile to speak up about unethical practices. This includes the art of winning trust, demonstrating mutual respect and sharing aspirations. Somehow these disparate forces must be shaped into coherent corporate goals.

Are you a collaborative leader?

The best performing business CEOs need four basic collaborative skills—see box: Are you a collaborative leader?


The Future

Given the pressures from pace of change, complexity, global forces and the expectations of employees, the future then is collaborative.

Yet some business leaders find the world of collaboration alien. They retain a built-in resistance to it. For some it’s more comfortable to stick with the known. This may take the form of hoarding information, rather than sharing it.  

Resistance to effective collaboration takes the form of

  • Avoiding the demands of networking  
  • Not recognizing or ignoring the power of social media
  • Refusing to become more personally available through easier access
  • Failing to talk to competitors and fear of crossing regulatory boundaries
  • Missing opportunities to collaborate in unexpected places.

There is therefore a significant difference between a business leader who embraces collaboration to those who remain stuck in more traditional ways—see infographic, traditional versus Collaborative leaders.

When you dissect the true nature of collaborative leading, it’s more about a process than what a leader personally does. Good collaborative leadership therefore involves promoting:

  • Joint problem-solving and decision-making

It’s not the leader’s job to decide what to do and then tell the group. Rather, the group considers the problem, then decides on the best form of action. Through this the group learns to trust the leader to help focus their effort.

  • An open process

Rather than accepting a leader’s goals, when collaboration begins it has no set end-point. The participants decide the end result and how to get there. That’s collaboration.

The Downside of Collaboration

Despite obvious benefits from collaboration there are some obvious downsides. For a start, it can generate more complexity. unexpected ethical dilemmas and ratchet up pressure for even faster results.

Consequently, a counter movement treats collaboration as a negative. Not a positive feature of modern business. This can be summed up as “taking back control’. It may include a demand for national trade barriers to protect local assets. For example, to deter off-shoring of production, and moving operations to locations with cheaper labor costs.

This movement values more in-sourcing and on-shoring, reducing international supply chains, and restricting migration. It’s essentially a backlash against the challenges of interconnection, complexity and ultimately globalization.

Rejecting the forces of collaboration though is easier to advocate than achieve in practice. Both pace and complexity drive the forces of collaboration. Opposing them can seem like Canute telling the waves to back off. Just about everywhere you look in business, the forces pushing for collaboration seem to be winning.

For example companies that promote collaborative working are several times more likely to be high performing against those that place less trust in collaboration.


For ethically-minded business leaders the growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses yet a further twist to the complexity saga.

Its ultimate social and economic impact remains unclear. Will human kind collaborate with AI or end up fighting for purpose and survival?  

The ethical issues arising from humans collaborating with AI seem endless, from hidden bias to serious, perhaps irreversible damage to human interests. Two recent reports from the newly formed Centre for Data Ethics bring to life some of the issues:

“…The technology has the potential to improve lives and benefit society but it also brings ethical challenges which need to be carefully navigated if we are to make full use of it. It is an issue that governments worldwide are now grappling with …”

The Centre presents various factors making it hard for business leaders to know how to handle the ethical dimension of AI—see box: “The hard to discern ethical impact of AI bias”.

The Payoff

What can business leaders expect from good collaboration?  Gains include:

  • Ethical Awareness: This helps in teasing out conflicts of interest and other ethical dilemmas. 
  • Buy-in: Encourages collective ownership of the enterprise. A sense of ownership builds commitment to the common purpose.
  • Responsibility: People will take responsibility for supporting group action if they’ve helped develop it.
  • Build trust: An open process encourages discussion, dialogue and builds confidence among those involved.
  • Less silo mentality: Collaborative leaders can reduce boundary issues through attacking silos. By establishing mutual trust they can ensure everyone’s feels they have a voice.
  • More and better information and ideas: There’s greater access to information and different perspectives.
  • Builds new leaders: Helps to train new leaders from within the group. Ensures continuity and commitment to the goals of the group.

To sum up

For all kinds of companies collaboration can be an attractive direction of travel.

Driven by the twin forces of pace of change and complexity, it offers important gains. Quite simply, the pressure to collaborate appears unstoppable.  

Business leaders must therefore adapt to teasing out unexpected ethical concerns from their collaborations Three simple questions can reveal important links between collaboration and ethics:

“What are the ethical implications of this particular collaboration?

“Is it the right thing to do?

“Why might we live to regret this choice of partnership?


  • A Raval, Sarasin cuts Shell stake over climate Worries. FT 9th July 2019
  • Exploring Inter professional Collaboration and Ethical Leadership, A Resource for Professional Practice Developed by the College of Early Childhood Educators and the Ontario College of Teachers
  • M Kosin, Brand Partnerships That Failed Miserably (And A Few That Worked), Urbo, September 15, 2017
  • Community Tool box, Section 11. Collaborative Leadership (
  • M. Seddon, Russian social networks taps into e-commerce, FT 26th July 2019

Thanks to David Archer of Socia Limited for helpful comments on this post.

Comments are closed.