Shared Leadership in Teams: Part 3 in a 3-Part Series on Effective Teams

October 20, 2014

In the third blog in this three-part series, Project Director Lupe Poblano discusses the role of leaders in teams, and how shared leadership can help teams thrive. In Part 2 he explored team decision making, specifically, when and how teams should be used for decision making. In Part 1, he explored common definitions for teams and outlined the circumstances that help them function at their highest level.

We have now come to the end of our journey around this notion of teaming. We started by talking about what teams actually are and what defines a successful team. In the previous blog, we examined the decision-making process within teams. However, one thing we have not discussed, and something I have been intentionally silent about thus far, is the role of the team leader. 

Without a doubt, the role of the leader within a team is important. Most research focuses attention on the role and influence of the designated team leader—and we here at CompassPoint contribute to that research as well (such as my wonderful colleague Marla’s blog post on the impact of the Board Chairs). Not surprisingly, most credit or blame for a team’s outcomes focuses on the designated team leader. If the team does well, the leader gets applauded and recognized for the team’s efforts. If the team does not succeed, everyone can point the finger at the leader and absolve themselves of blame. We see this often in sports, in our political system, and even within our own organizations. This puts a lot of pressure on our leaders. Not surprisingly, there usually are not many people scrambling over each other to sign up for the role of team leader. 

But what if we were to consider another way? What if there was a way where everyone on the team felt responsible for what happened? This question drives us toward the notion of shared leadership within teams.

Shared Leadership Defined

Let’s define this construct of shared leadership before we move any further. Shared leadership refers to an environment where leadership is distributed among team members rather than being held by a single designated team leader. Team members voluntarily (yet intentionally) offer their influence to others in the group in support of shared goals. In other words, leadership is seen as a quality that must be carried out by the entire team. Moreover, studies have shown that teams that practice shared leadership are more successful than those that have a classical leadership model. (Carson, J. B., Tesluk, P. E., & Marrone, J. A., 2007. “Shared leadership in teams: An investigation of antecedent conditions and performance.” Academy of Management Journal, 50(5): 1217-1234). 

Again, this isn’t an attempt to diminish the role of the designated team leader. Among other responsibilities, the team leader can set the agenda, frame the goal, model the desired communications norms, and be an advocate for the team within the larger organization. And yet, perhaps the leader’s greatest role can be to set up the context for shared leadership within a team, so that regardless of rank or position within the organization, everyone leads.

What Does Shared Leadership Look Like?

There are four essential qualities of shared leadership. Some of these will be easier to attain than others, and some will be easier to measure than others. The key is to recognize that shared leadership is a process—a process worth striving for.

Shared purpose. This includes team members knowing what the primary objectives are but expands far beyond that. What are the collective team goals? What are we solving for? What are we agreeing will be our team experience? Teams that have a shared purpose are more willing to also share in leadership responsibilities, and they are more likely to feel motivated, empowered, and committed to both their team and work.

Social Support. Often, a good team leader is seen as someone who encourages, recognizes, and lifts up the accomplishments of others. This is true. But what would happen if everyone on the team did this, not just the designated leader? Team members can support one another through encouraging and recognizing team and individual contributions and accomplishments. This helps to create an environment where team members feel that their input is valued and appreciated by everyone in the group.

Mutual Accountability. Accountability in any relationship is incredibly important. Team leaders typically use positional authority (or their personalities) to make team members accountable to them. Instead of accountability toward one person, however, what if everyone felt accountable to everyone else on their team? You can see how this quality builds on the ideas of shared purpose and social support. If everyone on the team has a sense of shared purpose, and they feel that their contributions are valued by the entire group, team members are more likely to feel that they are accountable to everyone, not just the team leader. Mutual accountability means that everyone shares in the victories, and everyone shares in working through challenges.

Voice. This element is the hardest to define, measure, and is perhaps the trickiest to ensure. At its core, voice is represented by participation and input. It is really the degree to which a team member has the ability to influence how a team carries out its purpose. This can include participation in decision making and constructive discussion, or debate around alternative approaches to team goals, tasks, and procedures. If you are wondering if team members feel like they have a voice within a team—ask them if they feel heard.

As a team leader, you can create an environment where people engage in shared leadership by being committed to and feeling responsibility for accomplishing the team’s collective goals. This gives people a greater sense of meaning and increased motivation for team members to share their voices and invest in providing leadership to the team and responding to the leadership of others. Ultimately, this is shared leadership: a model for creating a team where everyone has a stake in driving forward toward action.

And the payoff to shared leadership is captured beautifully by organizational development writer Margaret Wheatley: “participation is not a choice. We have no choice but to invite people into the process of rethinking, redesigning, restructuring the organization. We ignore people's need to participate at our own peril. If they're involved, they will create a future that already has them in it” (Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers, “Bringing Life to Organizational Change,” Journal for Strategic Performance Measurement, April/May 1998). 

Next Steps / Resources

Lupe’s Recent Blogs

Lupe Poblano, MS, is a Project Director at CompassPoint. You can reach him by email. Follow him on twitter at @LupePoblano. 


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