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We Don’t Need Teamwork, We Need Shared Leadership

Want better teams? Focus on enhancing employees’ shared leadership quotient.

  • Shared leadership is a powerful way to combine effective leadership with high-quality team interaction.
  • This approach to work is based on the understanding of necessary roles, and flexibility in exchanging roles.
  • Shared leadership increases the diversity of thought as well as back-up for each role, but takes more effort to implement.

We know a great deal about the “processes” that make teams effective—things like psychological safety, constructive conflict, and information sharing. We pay much less attention, however, to the “inputs” that maximize these team processes.

One of the most promising inputs that deserve attention is leadership. But I’m not talking about the leadership of an authority figure (e.g., manager, supervisor). I’m referring to the leadership of the team members themselves.

The idea that team members can engage in dynamic, mutual influence on each other is called shared leadership, and it is a powerful catalyst for facilitating better team processes, and in turn, higher team performance.

Shared leadership goes beyond being a good teammate. It’s an opportunity for team members to fulfill their full potential, positively influence others, and optimize team interactions.

Outlined below are the theoretical foundation of shared leadership, role theory, and the three components of shared leadership that all team members should know and practice.

Grounded in Role Theory

The shared leadership concept is grounded in role theory, which suggests that individuals’ work-related contributions and interaction patterns can be categorized into several buckets. One simple and well-validated approach is Jay Carson’s work that outlines four leader roles:

  1. Navigators set the direction and orchestrate tasks.
  2. Engineers solve problems and deliver outputs.
  3. Integrators facilitate cooperation and communication.
  4. Liaisons monitor the environment and act as connectors to external resources.

The first central premise of role-based shared leadership is that teams are more effective when each of the roles is owned by one or more members. A second central premise is that teams are more effective when they can artfully claim and grant these leadership roles given their circumstances at any one point in time. Given this role theory foundation, the following are the three components that facilitate higher quality shared leadership.

1. Role Exchange Mindset

A role exchange mindset acknowledges that whoever is best-suited for a specific leadership role should be the one to claim that leadership role. This mindset also recognizes that the task at hand will inevitably evolve and different team members might not always be readily available.

A role exchange mindset, therefore, entails: (a) getting comfortable with constantly going back-and-forth between leading and following; (b) taking on leadership roles when the time is right, and (c) encouraging others to take the lead when they show an interest in doing so.

2. Egolessness

Perhaps the hardest part of shared leadership is letting go of our ego. It feels good to be the leader. We love being in charge, being the expert, or having it done our way. Unfortunately, these ego-based tendencies get in the way of optimizing shared leadership.

Ideally, then, we: (a) show a willingness to take on leadership roles, but only when the team needs us to do so; (b) defer leadership roles to whoever is the expert for the topic at hand; and (c) step aside and let others lead without judgment or concern.

3. Awareness

For egoless role exchange to happen seamlessly and efficiently necessitates self-awareness and other-awareness of work-related skills, tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. Role exchange only works when the right people take on the right roles at the right time.

Shared leadership is therefore at its best when we: (a) are aware of whether or not we have the necessary skill set to take on a specific role; (b) have an accurate understanding of our team members strengths and weaknesses; and (c) have a sound appreciation for each team members’ role preferences.

Pros, Cons, and Caveats

A few years ago, I published a review article outlining the benefits and detriments of shared leadership across 175 peer-reviewed journal articles. I found that shared leadership is beneficial for two primary reasons.

First, it increases the diversity of thought. One of the primary goals of teams is creating synergy (e.g., 1 + 1 equals more than 2). Teams that do shared leadership well appear to have heightened team synergy in that they have higher quality ideas and decisions.

Second, it increases back-up behaviors. Another primary goal of teams is that they facilitate specialization through the division of labor. The challenge, however, is that these static divisions create role silos. Shared leadership overcomes these silos and ensures that the team keeps making forward progress, regardless of the situation.

The biggest detriment to shared leadership is that it can be costly in terms of communication and coordination. Ensuring that everyone is on the same page takes more time and structure. It also takes more energy because it requires team members to step up and lead even when they aren’t in the mood. This aligns with meta-analytic findings which illustrate that shared leadership might be unnecessary for relatively straightforward tasks.

Final Thoughts

Leadership and teams are two of the most prominent topics in work psychology. This is primarily because research illustrates that effective leadership and high-quality team interactions are two of the strongest predictors of organizational performance. Why not take the best of both worlds and start working on shared leadership?

What’s your shared leadership quotient? Take this 9-question assessment to find out.

Visit my website for more free resources including assessments, articles, newsletters, blogs, and an e-book titled “A Field Guide to Human Capital Assessments.”

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