Business Psychology

Article No. 334
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

To Lead a Group

New research offers guidance to supervisors in their leadership roles.

If you ask a mother who has raised two children to explain how it’s done, you’re likely to get quite a dissertation. There’s a lot to do and a lot to know, and as you listen, you’ll notice a theme pervading her description: children make known their needs, and mothers provide for them. Children cry to get their diapers changed. They fuss to get dinner. They shout to insist upon more freedom, and they write home to get money. In management terms, this is called individualized leadership. Mom, the leader, responds to needs made known by her children and personally provides necessary resources: time, attention, food, money, and so on.

If you ask a mother who has raised ten children to listen to this description, she’s likely to have strong reactions to it. If she identifies with the individualized leadership theme that each child’s needs must be monitored and tended to by the mother, then she’s likely to be reminded of feeling like a colossal failure as her family grew up. She was a mother who was completely overwhelmed by the needs of her children, unable to respond to them, and consequently neglectful of them. Such a mother would probably not sit still very long for this discussion and try to change the subject. Mothers with lots of children, like managers with lots of subordinates, are poorly served by an individualized leadership focus. Fortunately, there is an alternative, both for mothers and managers. It is a group leadership focus.

Imagine Rose Kennedy, the mother of President John Kennedy and seven other children, occupying her place at a large dinner table when all of her children were young. Her opportunity and her goal would be to put this family to work. There’s raising children to get accomplished, and she can’t do it alone. What would she do? What would she say? These aren’t hard questions. She would remind the children that they were Kennedys. They were special. No other family was quite like them, and they had a responsibility to watch out for each other and to nurture their brothers and sisters. They were to encourage them and help them. They were a team. Each child would feel called to a higher purpose and would feel responsible for the welfare of his/her siblings. Testimony from the now-grown Kennedy children bears this out. Rose Kennedy and the Kennedy clan are an example of a group-centered leadership approach to raising a family, and we can copy this in our businesses, but group-centered leadership in business is not the norm.

Managers have been coached for many years to adapt their leadership to each subordinate depending upon the needs the individual presents, just like the mother in the first example. Managers have also been reminded to attend to the needs of their subordinates as a team or group. The resulting mix of suggestions and prescriptions has led most managers to adopt a hybrid management style, interacting with individual employees in their offices and with employee groups at meetings. Some managers emphasize the individual interactions and avoid meetings. Some emphasize the group and avoid individuals. Joshua Wu, from the University of Miami, became curious about this mix and wondered if he could measure it. While he was about the task, he also found a way to measure its outcomes.

Wu studied 70 work groups from a variety of industries. The average group size was nine. He devised a way to measure and identify the mix of individual focus and group focus that each supervisor of these groups employed in their leadership roles. Finally, he noted the effect of these different emphases.

The highest performing, most effective work groups were led by managers using the greatest group-centered leadership focus. The lowest performing, least effective work groups were led by managers using the greatest individual-centered leadership focus. Looking more closely at the experience of children in a family will help explain why this might be true.

In a large family with the mother trying to respond individually to each child, some children will get more attention than others. To their siblings, these seemingly favored children will become the targets of abuse, and fighting will become the norm. Mom will be called upon to be a referee, placing yet another demand upon her time. These children will fail to develop a nurturing attitude toward their siblings, and the urgent group task, to raise a family, will be neglected. It will be every child for himself/herself. Does this sound like work? Would you like it to sound like someone else’s work setting but not yours? If so, then Wu has some suggestions for you. These will help you increase the group-centered focus of your leadership style.

Wu suggests we employ group-based rewards. Everyone must pull together to get them, and everyone enjoys the reward. He suggests we remind people of their membership in the group and encourage them to think of themselves as members. He suggests we challenge the group with goals that may seem out of reach and describe an attractive vision of the future. These serve to inspire people. He suggests that we point out common features shared by employees to encourage an identification with the group.

Over time, these themes will cause people to feel a stronger bond with the group, and their individual needs and problems will lose their importance. A collective identity will develop, and with it an elegant teamwork that accomplishes important work and nurtures its members. It is a tantalizing possibility.

Wu also reminds us that there is a place for private meetings and relationships with individual employees, but he feels this is limited to settings where interdependence among the jobs is so important that a manager is needed to insure a smooth work flow, even if it means giving more attention to some employees than others. Wu suggests we strive to distinguish when these circumstances exist and limit our individual centered leadership to them.

Reference: Wu, Joshua, Anne Tsui, and Angelo Kinicki (2010) Consequences of Differentiated Leadership in Groups. Academy of Management Journal, 53(1), 90-106.

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