In its early existence, a team led with a clear, directive approach outperforms one with a leader who is hands-off and emphasises empowerment. Over time, however, the empowered team forges insights and patterns of working that lead it to improve performance at a higher rate than directed teams. This is the finding from a new article by Natalia Lorinkova, Matthew Pearsall, and Henry Sims Jr, that aims to help solve the uncertainties about which leadership style is better. For them, the question is not which, but when.
The researchers investigated this issue using a computer strategy task undertaken by 60 5-person teams, each composed of undergraduates. Team members had distinct roles and had to coordinate actions to verify the accuracy of intel produced by Intelligence players to identify 'sweet spots' where their surveillance was highly accurate, traverse the battlefield safely and destroy enemies. My criticism of this study is that this kind of activity is very far from typical workplace activity, and the time-scales - one 3-hour session - out of proportion from the normal maturation of a work team. With that out of the way, the methodology is interesting, and the results notable.
The study required teams to be led by directive or empowering leaders. The directive style involves clear directions, explicit feedback, and minimises ambiguity on what you are supposed to do, similar to the 'tough leadership style'. An empowering style encourages followers to take ownership for tasks, and find their own norms of how to work well together. When they were recruited, participants completed measures of each style. The 30 highest scorers in directive leadership were each assigned leadership of a team, and additionally provided with pre-session training: 30 minutes including watching a clip from Apollo 13 showcasing the desired style and roleplaying out its behaviours. They were then provided with a 'cheat sheet' of advice to give, and a short speech to give at the outset of the task, that all reinforced their directive status. The other 30 teams were led by those scoring highest in empowering leadership, who received comparable training and resources.
After orientation and explanation of the task, teams completed 10 rounds of the task, with a break half-way through. The researchers predicted that the clarity of directive leadership enhances team performance within a stage of team development called 'role compilation'. Meanwhile, empoweringly-led teams use this stage to invest effort into figuring each other out, which pays off for them during a subsequent stage called 'team compilation' when the unit should be purring along. This is based on a four-stage model of team development by Kozlowski et al. (1999), but the mapping of role compilation onto rounds 1-5 and team compilation onto 6-10 seems a little arbitrary to me. Lorinkova's team do point out that risk-taking behaviour dropped between 1-5 and 6-10, suggesting they had moved to more routinised action.
Directive leaders earned higher performance in the task during rounds 1-5, but over stages 6-10 the empowered teams improved at a higher rate, leading to comparable performance by the end. The analysis confirmed several reasons behind this: the empowered groups learned to coordinate better, felt psychologically more in control, and after the study end were more accurate at characterising their colleague's capabilities and focus in a separate task. When entered into the analysis beforehand, the effect of empowered leadership could no longer be detected, suggesting that these were the routes through which empowerment was having its effect.
The authors would like to see this research conducted over longer time-scales, using set-ups more reflective of the workplace. However, this study already raises an important angle on leadership style: its impact may be profoundly tied to context, in particular the developmental stage of a team. Existing models emphasise the need for individual follower readiness for empowering leadership to work - some people may not expect nor desire ownership of tasks and the freedom to choose methods. But this research points to the dynamical processes within a team - where members stand in relation to one another and the team as a whole. The reliance on cross-sectional methodology in many leadership style studies may explain the controversy between studies: measuring at round 4 or round 9 would have produced very different conclusions about the relative benefits.
In conclusion, Lorinkova and colleagues offer a warning of taking these findings too simplistically: 'Although there may be some advantage to employing a combination of the two leadership approaches (e.g., Gratton & Erickson, 2007), our results suggest that the benefits of empowering leadership in teams tended to manifest because team members initially engaged in role identification and learning processes during the role compilation phase. Empowered teams, therefore, may not be able to reap the benefits of improved performance over time without first suffering the initial performance delays.'
Seibert, S. E., Wang, G., & Courtright, S. H. 2011. Antecedents and consequences of psychological and team empowerment in organizations: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96: 981–1003.