This text is a summary on Shared Leadership, aimed specifically at practitioners. Since it is fairly long, you can just jump to the section that you are most interested in.
If you have any questions, don't hestiate to contact me via Twitter or Email!
In my experience is it is easier for most people to understand what Shared Leadership is, when it is compared to more traditional leadership styles. So let's start with the question: What is leadership?
Generally, leadership is defined as a process in groups, which involves influencing others in order to achieve a common goal23. To put this into normal words, this usually describes one leader in a formal position (i.e. a team leader, project manager etc.), who influences the behavior of his/her team members in order to achieve the team goal. This still sounds very theoretical, especially regarding what kind of behavior counts as leadership.
So let us talk about leadership behaviors. There are many systems of describing and categorizing different leadership behaviors and I will not bore you with all of them but instead concentrate on one system, which divides leadership behavior into four different categories. This leadership system is also used to measure Shared Leadership9 and is therefore quite appropriate in our context.
First, there is task related leadership. This refers to leadership behaviors aimed strictly at achieving the tasks the team is trying to accomplish. It includes behaviors such as setting deadlines, assigning tasks to certain team members, as well as the monitoring of work progress.
Second, there is relationship focused leadership. This refers to leadership behaviors aimed at improving team member motivation and satisfaction by showing encouragement for jobs well done, supporting team members in conflict situations and taking the time to talk about personal issues.
Third, there is leadership aimed at change management. This refers to behaviors directed at making the best out of changes, for example by inspiring team members to adopt new ideas and to help them make sense of recent changes in the company.
Fourth, there is leadership aimed at networking. This is new to the literature and describes how leaders can help their team members establish connections to important persons (for example experts in other teams who can help with problems).
None of these behaviors is “superior” to the others in the sense that a leader should focus on one of them more than the others. Rather, the importance of these behaviors is dependent on situation. For relatively simple production tasks, networking behaviors might be less important than task related behaviors. Nonetheless, a good leader finds the right balance of all of these behaviors towards his/her team. If you think this sounds difficult, you are right.
Let us come back to shared leadership. Shared leadership expands on traditional leadership less in terms of content (so what kind of leadership behaviors are enacted, these stay usually the same), but it expands on the idea of how many people are engaged in enacting these behaviors14.
Below you can see a graphic demonstration of the difference between the two. On the left, we have a very traditional team in which A is the team leader and he/she is the only person leading the
other team members using all four categories of leadership behaviors. On the right side, we see an example of perfect Shared Leadership in which everyone is leading everyone else. Obviously,
these are extreme examples of either extreme centralization or extreme decentralization of leadership which are unlikely to occur in reality, but they should make the point quite clear.
Left: Centralized Leadership with A as the dominant leader. Right: Shared Leadership with perfect distribution of leadership.
One advantage that stands out immediately is that the demands towards the team leader should be lower in teams with Shared Leadership since enacting all four categories of leadership towards all team members can be both difficult and exhausting.
Look at an example in the relational leadership area. Let us assume that a team leader has five people in his/her team (as shown in the picture). On a typical Monday, the team leader might make his round from one person to the next and engage in a typical relational leadership behavior: Intentionally asking how the team member’s weekend was. This behavior shows both a personal interest in the team member’s well-being as well as consideration of their personal issues and can be seen as low-key relational leadership since this improves team member well-being and likely impacts job satisfaction and performance positively.
Now imagine a larger team with 15 people and it should become obvious that even a 5-minute conversation about the weekend would be a strain on the time resources of the team leader, if he/she were to talk to each and every team member. In addition to this, remembering the details of all team members is also a cognitive strain that might easily be too much.
In Shared Leadership, other team members might also engage in such relational leadership by intentionally asking others how their weekend was and thus it might be sufficient for the team leader to talk to team members intermittently, meaning not every but every other week without them feeling left out.
At this point, you might stop and think:
“All my team members do that over coffee, so how is that different from what teams usually do?”
This is a good question! Established teams with good teamwork show a wide range of leadership behaviors so that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between leadership and
teamwork18. However, the main difference lies in the
intentional aspect of the behavior. While team members tend to talk about their private life to a certain degree, this is quite different from intentionally taking time to talk to the team
members with the higher intention of showing a personal interest in order to improve the relationship.
Let us take another (admitedly not super-realistic) example that is less likely to occur “on its own” in well-functioning teams.
Imagine a project team working on a complex estimate for production costs for a costumer. This project has an official deadline in the middle of next month, given by the customer. It has also a deadline at the end of this month. The second deadline was set by the team leader as part of his task-related leadership in order to have time for review and correcting errors two weeks before the final report goes out (and yes, this is a unrealistic luxuy in most companies, but we're allowed to dream!)
In order for the project to finish at that point, several tasks have to be fulfilled by certain team members such as assembling data, calculating projections in coordination with other departments, writing and finalizing the draft and so on. While the team leader has set a deadline for all work to be finished, team members might set internal deadlines for each other to make sure all parts of the project are progressing somewhat in synch. Therefore, Bob asks Jim if he can submit the data for the estimated costs by lunchtime so that he can include it in his calculations; this is a form of shared leadership in the area of the task related leadership. Likewise, team members might check each other’s work before building upon it, thus engaging in monitoring behavior. Last but not least, team members might also offer help to a team member who is behind schedule by assuming some of his/her tasks in order to get the project back on track.
You might argue that all of these behaviors are nothing but good teamwork and I heartily agree. However, good teamwork demands good leadership and we can easily imagine that none of the above-mentioned behaviors occur in this team if teamwork was bad and no shared leadership existed. No help, no monitoring, no deadlines just a shifting of blame “It was his/her job to do X” or “No, I didn’t control these numbers, that was Jim’s job”.
The point of Shared Leadership is to get as many team members as possible to engage in these leadership behaviors in order to get excellent teamwork, achieved through team members leading each.
The obvious advantage of Shared Leadership here is that extensive leadership behaviors can be a drain on the time and resources of a single leader and thus more leadership can be brought to bear if it is shared, rather than centralized.
One of the most investigated relationships is, not surprisingly, between Shared Leadership and team performance. Obviously, from a practical standpoint one of the main questions is whether Shared Leadership actually works or whether it is just another new and fancy selling point for consultants.
Scientific research has addressed this question in depth and these findings are nicely summarized in a recent meta-analysis by D’Innocenzo, Mathieu and Kukenberger6.
For those not familiar with the term meta-analysis, it is essentially meta-study in which several studies are summarized. Therefore, while a single study might suffer from any number of biases or random sampling errors that can cause its findings to be difficult to interpret, a meta-analysis summarizes a wide range of studies. Meta-analytic findings are much stronger with regard to their validity and can be taken as a summary of an entire research field.
In this particular meta-analysis, the authors looked at 43 individual studies, which included a total of 3,198 teams and 16,010 individuals. Accordingly, we are looking at a very large sample of teams across a wide range of industries, including “automobile, social work, financial services, insurance, government, firefighting and aviation” (p. 13). They find a small to medium association (correlation) between Shared Leadership and team performance.
Teams who practice Shared Leadership show a higher level of performance compared to those that do not. This establishes a link between Shared Leadership and team performance.
While our first meta-analysis only focusses on team performance, a second one goes beyond that and looks at a wider range of effects of Shared Leadership. This study by Wang, Waldmann and Zhang summarizes 40 studies with 3,439 teams and 32,616 team members22. Specifically these authors were interested in four different categories of outcomes:
Attitudinal outcomes such as higher levels of commitment, job satisfaction and lower levels of conflict. Behavioral states such as coordination, helping and cohesion in teams. Subjective team performance, as rated by the team members or the supervisor and objective team performance, as measured by actual sales or productivity.
Obviously, D’Innoncenzo and colleagues.6 already investigated performance, so we will skip this and concentrate on attitudinal and behavioral outcomes of Shared Leadership. Why are these important you might ask?
Well, getting teams and team members to work efficiently and to go “beyond” their plain job description is much more complex than just making sure team goals are achieved on time. In order to get the most out of employees their attitudes matter. Commitment and job satisfaction are essential to lower turnover and retain the knowledge, skills and abilities of team members21. At the same time, behaviors like helping and coordinating are essential to getting things done. Therefore, both are important secondary results of Shared Leadership that in their own right are able to boost teams.
The findings of Wang and colleagues confirm that Shared Leadership is connected to both groups of outcomes22. They find a medium-strong association between Shared Leadership and attitudes (0.45) as well as behavioral states (0.44).
Therefore, teams who practice Shared Leadership have better attitudes (such as commitment) and show better behaviors (such as helping) than teams who do not enact Shared Leadership.
After these two rather large meta-analyses, one might conclude that Shared Leadership is vastly superior to classical leadership approaches and thus should replace it. However, that is not the case. A third meta-analysis by Nicolaides and colleagues13 addresses, among other questions, whether Shared Leadership and classical leadership are complementary and thus, support each other to achieve synergies and better outcomes or whether they are redundant13. Replacing classical leadership by Shared Leadership would only make sense in the latter case and require the finding that Shared Leadership does everything classical leadership does, but better.
The authors found 52 studies to include in their meta-analysis. Of course, several of the same studies that were included in the other two meta-analyses above, were used here as well. However, since the question asked by the authors was different, this should not matter to the interpretation of results here. Unfortunately, the authors do not report the number of teams and team members; however, I assume that they are in a similar range as in the other two studies.
In their analysis, the authors contrast Shared Leadership and classical vertical leadership with regard to their relationship to team performance. This is done by analyzing the amount of variance of performance that both constructs explain separately and together. Now, what does this mean? The analysis of variance can be compared to a very simple example.
Let’s say two people are pushing a cart up a hillside. The speed of the moving cart is our performance here and we could potentially measure how much force each person is applying to the cart. Thus, if the cart is moving at 3km/h and Person A is contributing enough force for 1km/h while the second person is contributing enough force for 2km/h we could clearly attribute the amount of variance in the speed/performance of the cart and say that Person A is responsible for 33% of the variance. Of course, in a social context, we are never able to explain the entire variance of something as complex as teamwork because so many effect interact with each other that we cannot measure them all.
In this study 16,5% of the variance of team performance could be explained by Shared Leadership and Vertical Leadership together (which is pretty good). Furthermore, the analysis also showed that these two behaviors do not replace each other but rather that they are complimentary, meaning that Shared Leadership does things vertical leadership does not and vice versa. It is therefore recommended to use both and not to focus on one of the two. In numbers, vertical leadership alone explained 10,8% of team performance and Shared Leadership added another 5,7% over and beyond. There is some overlap between the two behaviors, as to be expected, but the strongest effect can be achieved by combining them.
To sum up: While the field of Shared Leadership research is still quite young and the number of studies is limited, there is a strong consensus among researchers that Shared Leadership is associated with higher levels of performance, better cooperative behaviors and better attitudes of the team members. Therefore, from a practical view, it makes a lot of sense on trying to establish Shared Leadership in work teams in order to maximize team effectiveness. Furthermore, research also shows that shared and vertical leadership do complement each other and together can achieve more than separate. Thus, formal leaders are still needed to get the most out of teams.
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 question is: How do we GET Shared Leadership in Teams? For this, we will turn to the work of Pearce, Manz, and Sims who assembled a great book called “Share Don’t Take the Lead”16 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 Diamond16
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 Leadership1,8,10. 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 colleagues16.
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 team11. 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 them3.
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 trust7, 20 and given recommendations16 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 situation17. 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 other3. 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 better. Therefore, team members should be encouraged to share their ideas and knowledge with one another by voicing them in regular meetings3. 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 it2 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 tell us about the leadership practice at W.L. Gore and Associates, the company that makes Gore-Tex19. 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" […]19 (p.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 Sims15 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 concepts 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 follows 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 team5. Some studies have also found positive effects of mixed national background and gender on shared leadership12. 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 leadership11 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.
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