Shared Leadership for Practitioners III: How do we get Shared Leadership?
In the last installment of our little series on Shared Leadership for Practitioners, we address the final question of how to get Shared Leadership. In the first part of this series, we defined Shared leadership as an informal way of distributing leadership across several team members, thus involving several or all team members in the leadership process. In the second part, we noticed that recent scientific research shows that teams who practice Shared Leadership show higher levels of performance as well as increased levels of communication and cooperation compared to teams that don’t. More importantly, Shared Leadership is not a replacement of vertical (or classical) leadership by the formal leader but rather a complimentary extension of it.
Therefore, from a practitioners view, Shared Leadership is a great tool to help their formal leaders make better decisions, have teams perform better and involve team members actively in the company while at the same time gaining a vast array of positive benefits in the area of communication, coordination and affective elements such as trust.
The next logical step, as announced a couple of weeks ago, is this third installment: How do we GET Shared Leadership in Teams? For this, we will turn to the work of Pearce, Manz, and Sims (2014b) who assembled a great book called “Share Don’t Take the Lead” in which they talk about different companies and organizations and how Shared Leadership was implemented within them. I would definitely recommend it, as it is also aimed more at practitioners and not just researchers. Anyway, in the last chapter, written by Pearce & Manz, they talk about the lessons from the book and propose the Shared Leadership Diamond.
Shared Leadership Diamond, adapted from Pearce & Manz (2014)
They differentiate the approaches to implementing Shared Leadership into four dimensions. On the individual level, on the team level and on the organizational level as well as from a HR perspective and we will follow this formula, though we will go beyond their recommendations and include a couple of more recent findings in the literature as well.
On the individual level, a team leader has a wide range of options to encourage his team members to involve themselves in the Shared Leadership process. The leadership he or she provides is essential in order for team members to feel valued and to increase their willingness to show leadership themselves. There is scientific evidence that empowering leadership, defined as any leadership behavior aimed at increasing motivation by sharing power and responsibilities with others, is a strong enabler of Shared Leadership (Amundsen & Martinsen, 2014; Fausing, 2015; Hoch, 2013). As such, team leaders should encourage their team members to take the lead. This should be a strict proficiency based level and experts should take the lead when their expertise gives them a knowledge advantage over their colleagues (Pearce et al., 2014b).
In addition to this, coaching behaviors can also support the creation of Shared Leadership. The difference between a leader and a coach lies in the level of involvement in day-to-day activities. As such, a leader is part of the team and strongly involved, while a coach is distanced and usually provides advice or establishes useful connections for the team (Morgeson, DeRue, & Karam, 2010). Outside coaching can, especially in newly created teams or teams which have low levels of cooperation, provide the guidance needed to get things done while at the same time providing the freedoms and challenges needed to require teams to develop Shared Leadership in order to meet them (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007).
At the team level things get slightly more complicated since we do not simply ask, “What can the team leader do”, but also aim at improving the cooperation between team members. However, research has offered several important insights on which behaviors are most important for Shared Leadership to occur.
First of those is, unsurprisingly in my mind, trust. Several authors have investigated the role of trust (Drescher, Korsgaard, Welpe, Picot, & Wigand, 2014; Small & Rentsch, 2010) and given recommendations (Pearce et al., 2014b) to that regards. In a nutshell: For people either to assume the mantle of leadership or to accept another team member to do so requires trust. What is trust? Generally, Trust is defined as a state in which one person is willing to be vulnerable to another person’s actions in the belief that the second person will not abuse this situation (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998). It becomes apparent quickly, why this is important in any team context but especially in a leadership context. First, the entire team is accepting vulnerability when allowing any team member to assume leadership, since that team member might actually not act in the best interest of the team. Second, the person trying to assume leadership is also becoming vulnerable not only to strong criticism for his/her leadership but also the potential blame for failing to solve a problem. Teams with a toxic atmosphere and strong rivalries will see less team members attempting to practice Shared Leadership than those who support each other (Carson et al., 2007). As such, it is important to provide a good supportive environment.
Second, communication and information sharing are of utmost importance in teams for several reasons. Trust is one essential bedrock for team members either to exert leadership or to accept it from others; however, it surely helps if they know about the knowledge, skills and abilities of each other. Like someone said: Trust is good, knowledge is also good. Or something along these lines. Therefore, team members should be encouraged to share their ideas and knowledge with one another by voicing them in regular meetings (Carson et al., 2007). Additionally, teams benefit if everyone is “on the same page” what some scientists call team mental models. These essentially describe the shared knowledge of what the team has to do, how stuff should be done and who should be doing it (Burke, Fiore, & Salas, 2003) and it helps if there is a high agreement on team members about these things.
From a scientific point, most studies have investigated the enablers of Shared Leadership at either the team or the individual level and research at the organizational level is sparse. Nonetheless, there is some advice and we will start with an example. In “Share, Don’t Take the Lead”, chapter 9, Shipper, Stewart, and Manz (2014) tell us about the leadership practice at W.L. Gore and Associates, the company that makes Gore-Tex. In one very telling example, a new employee is travelling on the plane to the company and I will quote from here on:
“Two weeks after I joined Gore, I traveled to Phoenix for training… I told the guy next to me on the plane where I worked, and he said: “I work for Gore, too.” “No kidding?” I asked. “Where do you work?” He said “Oh, I work over at the Cherry Hill plan”… I spend two and a half hours on this plane having a conversation with this gentleman who described himself as a technologist and shared some of his experiences. As I got out of the plane, I shook his hand and said, “I’m Dave Gioconda, nice to meet you.” He replied, “Oh, I’m Bob Gore” […] (Shipper et al., 2014, pp. 127–128).
Besides the fact that both Dave and Bob seemed to take quite a long time to introduce themselves, this little story shows several important lessons. Pearce, Manz, and Sims (2009a) call it “keep egos in check”, showing that personal status is of less importance than competence and knowledge, which they call “knowledge trumps status”. It also shows a living vision of how the company should act, namely by empowering all employees and encouraging their employees to speak up. This, by the way is not an isolated quote from that chapter, the description continues in both spirit and details and describes a very lively Shared Leadership context.
As you can easily see here, several of the concept mentioned above are integrated at the organizational level and have to be implemented with authenticity and consequence. Lip service announcements are not going to suffice in this complex context of Shared Leadership.
Lastly, the dimension of human resources remains. Of course, the selection of team members becomes of utmost importance when dealing with Shared Leadership. This following some fairly simple reasoning: If all team members were clones of each other and they all had the exact same knowledge, skills and abilities, would there be any need for them to lead each other? Probably not since leading each other occurs most likely if one person has knowledge that the other’s don’t. To put that into a more practical example: There is no need to follow someone through the jungle if that person has no better knowledge of the jungle than you do. Researchers have argued, therefore, for the use of diversity in the makeup of the team (Cox, Pearce, & Perry, 2003). Some studies have also found positive effects of mixed national background and gender on shared leadership (Muethel, Gehrlein, & Hoegl, 2012). The more unique knowledge, skills and abilities (that of course should be somewhat relevant to the team task) is present in the team, the more likely it is that the person having important knowledge in a given situation will step up and take the lead. Therefore skilled team members are key to the establishment of shared leadership (Morgeson et al., 2010) and obviously, picking these members is, to a large part, the responsibility of HR in combination with the team leader and/or the team itself.
In order for teams to achieve Shared Leadership and the benefits associated with it, no single “Five steps to create…” recipe exist. Rather team leaders should consider different angles when attempting to create an atmosphere of distributed leadership starting with themselves by empowering their team members to take the lead. They should also consider a more hands-off coaching approach in order to give the teams the freedom and autonomy they need to develop organic leadership structures. At the same time, team atmosphere is highly important and team leaders should place a focus on increasing trust and team support, as well as encourage team members to speak up. Obviously, this also coincides with a “no blame organization” in which mistakes can be made without suffering debilitating social or career consequences. This in turn, will also increase information sharing and communication since the risks of sharing potentially valuable or even problematic information is reduced. Organizations also need to pay more than lip service to ideas of meritocracy as shown in the short story from W.L. Gore, such that competence is the defining measure of influence and not status, name or other considerations. Lastly, the selection of team members should always be done under consideration of expanding the range of abilities the team has. Unless tasks are very simple and rely on standard operating procedures, an abundance of redundant knowledge does not help teams.
Taking into consideration these little hints, teams and team leaders can hopefully get on a path to shared leadership and obtain all the advantages science has demonstrated this leadership style to offer. I would like to point out, that at no point in this series I promised that to be easy but good things usually aren’t.
That’s it for this little series on Shared Leadership for Practitioners. I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll be back soon-ish with more on Shared Leadership. Stay tuned and have a great week!
Burke, S. C., Fiore, S. M., & Salas, E. (2003). The role of shared cognition in enabling shared leadership and team adaptability. In C. L. Pearce & J. A. Conger (Eds.), Shared leadership. Reframing the hows and whys of leadership (pp. 103–122). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
Shipper, F., Stewart, G. L., & Manz, C. C. (2014). W.L. Gore & Associates has created an entire shared leadership culture. In C. L. Pearce, C. C. Manz, & H. P. Sims (Eds.), Share, don't take the lead . Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Muethel, M., Gehrlein, S., & Hoegl, M. (2012). Socio-demographic factors and shared leadership behaviors in dispersed teams: Implications for human resource management. Human Resource Management, 51(4), 525–548. doi:10.1002/hrm.21488
Cox, J. F., Pearce, C. L., & Perry, M. L. (2003). Toward a model of shared leadership and distributed influence in the innovation process: How shared leadership can enhance new product development team dynamics and effectiveness. In C. L. Pearce & J. A. Conger (Eds.), Shared leadership. Reframing the hows and whys of leadership (pp. 48–76). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
Amundsen, S., & Martinsen, Ø. L. (2014). Empowering leadership: Construct clarification, conceptualization, and validation of a new scale. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(3), 487–511. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.11.009
Drescher, M. A., Korsgaard, M. A., Welpe, I. M., Picot, A., & Wigand, R. T. (2014). The dynamics of shared leadership: Building trust and enhancing performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/a0036474