Monday, 29 April 2013

Accountability provokes more team-focused behaviours in leaders who are outsiders

Sometimes leaders epitomise the group they seek to lead, such as a former trucker heading a transport trade union. In other cases leaders are less prototypical; while they may have the attributes for the role, they 'come from outside'. How might leaders from these two moulds respond when the workplace demands more accountability for their actions?  A team led by Steffen Giessner of Erasmus University set out to know more, investigating the team-oriented behaviours that leaders engage in when they know they will be scrutinised by followers.

At first blush, the prototypical leaders might be highly responsive under conditions of accountability. After all, it's harder to justify treating yourself as special and above a group when you resemble them so closely; better to act for 'your people' and cement your position as 'one of them'. But a first experiment with 152 students suggested otherwise.

Here each participant was led to believe they were leading a virtual team of three followers, and had been selected on the basis of either being very group prototypical or group non-prototypical, according to their answers to a questionnaire. They were then to complete decision-making tasks by assigning analysis work to their followers and making the final call on what answers to provide. Better answers would score points - some for each follower, and more for the leader - with group combined scores and individual scores both leading to possible financial reward.

What the researchers cared about was how the leaders would carve up the points-pie when they were given the authority to do so themselves. Just before this decision, half the participants were told they would need to justify their reasons to the team, and meet with them face to face before the end of the experiment. In this high accountability condition, the non-prototypical leaders dropped the proportion of points they kept for themselves to a level significantly lower than the baseline set by the experimental rules up to that point. Without the accountability, they held on to the baseline number of points, or even a little more.

 Meanwhile the prototypical leaders showed an intermediate level of generosity across both conditions. Their team-oriented behaviours didn't alter when accountability was put on the horizon.  Giessner's team believed that this reflects the relative security that prototypicality provides: by nature part of the in-group, there is less pressure to try and prove it when under scrutiny.

The investigators followed this with a field study  of 64 leaders and 209 followers. Leaders self-rated their prototypicality and how much accountability was present in the job, as well as another factor: team identification. Giessner's team suspected that in reality, accountability may not motivate non-prototypical leaders when they don't care about being part of the team, such as an interim manager aiming to get their job done before parachuting out. This hypothesis was borne out: followers' ratings of their leaders team-oriented behaviours (such as willingness to sacrifice own time for the benefit of the team) were high for non-prototypical leaders under accountability, but only if team identification was also high.

To make sense of this, I think of the postgraduate-trained specialist leading the salt-of-the-earth law enforcement team: at the end of the day, do they consider themselves police too? If so, they are likely to respond to increases in accountability with visible team-focused behaviour.

Of course, this research doesn't address other reasons why you might demand scrutiny of leader decisions, such as keeping them honest or providing transparency to a wider audience and thus helping information exchange. But as a tool for encouraging team behaviours, this evidence suggests that accountability may be most potent when aimed at outsiders who care about being included.

ResearchBlogging.orgGiessner, S., van Knippenberg, D., van Ginkel, W., & Sleebos, E. (2013). Team-Oriented Leadership: The Interactive Effects of Leader Group Prototypicality, Accountability, and Team Identification. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0032445

Further reading:

Rus, D., van Knippenberg, D., & Wisse, B. (2012). Leader power and
self-serving behavior: The moderating role of accountability. The Lead-
ership Quarterly, 23, 13–26. DOI:10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.11.002


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