Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Shared leadership & team learning: time to embrace the team dynamic

The changing nature of the workforce has led to changes beyond the traditional vertical leader-member relationship, with more knowledge workers able and willing to demonstrate their leadership skills in the workplace. As a result, shared leadership – the notion that group members can informally lead each other – has become an increasingly important area of focus. It is particularly useful  in team and leadership research that conceptualises the horizontal leadership influence among group members. In addition to this academic focus, there are also real life cases of shared leadership being adopted, for example, in the healthcare and eduction industries. We also see it being used in new ventures, churches, equipment and engine manufacturing, consulting teams, local government, sales teams and even police departments. 

Researchers have theorised that shared leadership is dynamic rather than static, however there is still a lack of direct empirical evidence. Now a recent study has found that timing and stability of a team are critical factors in predicting how shared leadership stimulates team learning behaviours. Managers should therefore seize the opportunities in the early stages and avoid radical structural changes in team collaborations over time.  These findings were reported in a new study, “Learning to Share: Exploring Temporality in Shared Leadership and Team Learning” which was published by Small Group Research.  The authors are Lan Wang, Jian Han, Colin Fisher, and Yan Pan. 

The initial exploration sought to determine how shared leadership and team learning behaviours influence each other over time. During a business simulation project, the research team measured shared leadership using the “density of network” approach. Team learning behaviours were measured according to how well the team criticised one another’s work in order to improve performance, the extent to which the team freely challenged assumptions, and the extent to which the team evaluated weak points to become more effective. 

For analyses across three time periods – the beginning, middle, and end of a project – the writers examined how shared leadership affected learning over time. The study revealed that teams that engage in more learning behaviours early in the task are more likely to keep their leadership network structure stable. This stability is also positively associated with team learning behaviours at the midpoint and at the end of the task. The study also concluded that the positive relationship between shared leadership and team learning behaviours deteriorated over subsequent periods.  

A second focus of the paper examines how the stability of the network structure (“network churn”) is associated with team learning behaviours. The researchers assessed team dynamics based on the volume of network connections added and dissolved from one period of time to another.  The lower the “churn” within a team, the more stable the leadership structures and the more empowered team members are to coordinate effectively and consistently. 

The report also found that a significant majority of teams taking part in the study changed their leadership structure, or lost existing ones. Only one in six of the teams maintained the same leadership structure from beginning to end.Such stability of shared leadership structure promoted team learning. In addition, teams thatlost leadership ties had a substantial adverse effect on team learning in the late stages of a collaboration. 

As organisations have steadily progressed into the knowledge economy, we can no longer rely on simple notions of top-down, command-and-control leadership in work teams.  The speed of change and complexity in today’s business environment also challenges any single individual to possess all of the skills and abilities required to competently lead teams and organisations. Shared leadership is thus an emerging model of management, and this latest research suggests thatthe relationship between shared leadership and team learning is more complex than previously theorised, leaving more room and motivations for future research.

Read the paper here.


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