Blogpost 01

Shared Leadership and Teamwork



So, here's a question about shared leadership I was asked to other day:



"So what's the difference to teamwork?"


This occurred in a webinar on Shared Leadership I was holding for a large company and after talking about 20 minutes about the topic, this question came up. I was a little flabbergasted at first. The answer to that seems extremely obvious to me. However, I realized that the difference is not that clear for practitioners and even some researchers. Therefore, the purpose of this blogpost is just to discuss the difference and commonalities of shared leadership and teamwork.


Let us start with the somewhat boring scientific explanations. Let's start with leadership, move to shared leadership and then compare it to teamwork.


What then, is leadership? Well, someone once said that there are as many definitions of leadership as there are scientists researching leadership. However, one good definition is by Yukl (2003, p. 26) and states:


"Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives."


Now that is quite a mouthful but if we break it down a little, it comes down to this: It is a process involving influence in a group setting to achieve a common goal. Therefore, every time a person influences another person to modify his or her behavior and that modification contributes to the common goal, we are talking about leadership.


Traditionally, leadership has been regarded as being something that was delivered "top-down" from a manager or supervisor to an employee. Now, by comparison, what is Shared Leadership?


It is "a dynamic, interact influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals" (Pearce & Conger, 2003, p. 1).


At first glance, these might seem extremely similar and they are! However, while classical leadership does not specify that leadership might and is likely distributed across several team members, Shared Leadership makes this explicit. In fact, directive leadership of the kind where ALL leadership influence comes from just one supervisor or manager is extremely unlikely in reality, as many behaviors fall within the scope of influencing others towards team goals. For example, If I talk to a colleague and manage to talk him into getting a report done earlier so that I can include it in my work faster and achieve our project goal quicker, that would qualify as leadership as well. Admittedly, low key leadership but still.


So what is teamwork then? Well that is actually quite complicated enough that there are papers discussing just this one question (i.e. Salas, Burke & Cannon-Bowers, 2000; LePine et al., 2008), however with a focus on what makes great teamwork compared to "standard" teamwork.


On the basic level, I think Marks et al. (2001) hit it quite well when they stated that teamwork is the "team member's interdependent acts that convert inputs to outcomes through cognitive, verbal, and behavioral task work to achieve collective goals" (p. 357). Now what does that mean? On the basic level it means that teamwork is anything that people do together and need each other for, that helps to achieve a common goal (again with the common goal? we'll get back to that).


Let's take an example here, to make this clear.


Assume we are in a pizza place and have three people making pizza for us. The first guy makes the dough by getting the flour, the salt and maybe a little oil and working it all together. The second guy makes the sauce from tomatoes, thyme and so on. And the third guy puts other stuff on it and puts the pizza in the oven. That is a simple example of teamwork since these three guys share a common goal: Make a pizza (and sell it, presumably). They are also interdependent as the third guy relies on the other two to provide him with the material (or input) he needs to do his job.


At this point, there is no leadership involved as no behavior modification due to the influence of others has occurred. However, as Salas et al. (2000) point out, great teamwork has to involve several leadership behaviors, including leading and monitoring. So in order to achieve the maximum out of a team, we need leadership and if this leadership is coming from several people, it can be more effective than if it comes from just one person. So let’s go back to the pizza guys.


Assume they have a storeowner. That storeowner leads them in such a way that he tells them what to do. Examples might be quite simple "Order more flour, otherwise we'll run out" or "Clean the floor tonight, the health inspector might be coming by". Now if we share that leadership influence around, the owner might not have to say anything but the three guys might lead each other.


"How about you add a little more salt to the sauce, then I can leave out some in the dough and make it crispier" (I have no idea if that works, just go with it). 


"I have to make more dough here; can go get some flour quickly for me so I don't run out?". These are low-key examples of shared leadership, where one team member influences another towards a behavior change in order to achieve their team goal.


So back to our original question: What is the difference between teamwork and shared leadership?


Basic answer: Teamwork is just people working together to get something done while shared leadership is people influencing each other to get something done. In the first case, the first guy makes the dough, the second guy adds the toppings and the third guy puts it in the oven. In a task this simple, communication could be reduced to an absolute minimum. In the second case, these people would also engage in influencing each other, for example by asking a team member to order flour or by suggesting new toppings for the pizza.


So I hope I could show that there is a difference between shared leadership and teamwork. However, in practical terms, if we see great teamwork, we will also see shared leadership as the two are closely connected. I believe this to be the reason why people who have experienced great teamwork have trouble seeing the difference to shared leadership, because the occurrence of both, hand-in-hand, is natural for them. However, as I have shown above, we can have teamwork without shared leadership (at least in theory) and therein lies the difference.


Have a great weak!





LePine, J. A., Piccolo, R. F., Jackson, C. L., Mathieu, J. E., & Saul, J. R. (2008). A meta-analsysis of teamwork processes: Tests of a multidimensional model and relationship with team effectiveness criteria. Personnel Psychology, 61, 273–307.


Marks, M. A., Mathieu, J. E., & Zaccaro, S. J. (2001). A temporally based framework and taxonomy of team processes. Academy of Management Review, 26(3), 356–376.


Pearce, C. L., & Conger, J. A. (2003). All those years ago. In C. L. Pearce & J. A. Conger (Eds.), Shared leadership. Reframing the hows and whys of leadership . Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.


Salas, E., Burke, S. C., & Cannon-Bowers, J. A. (2000). Teamwork: Emerging principles. International Journal of Management Reviews, 2(4), 339–356.


Yukl, G. A. (2013). Leadership in organizations (8. ed., global ed). Boston, Munich u.a: Pearson.