In my previous post, I explored why a learning environment is one of the most critical components of high performing teams, based on a recently published study by a group of researchers from Belgium and the Netherlands. Today, I’ll discuss the one key ingredient to building a learning environment within teams – leadership.
Alright, so we’ve established that according to research, high performing teams are teams that are always learning. This is a very nice ideal, I’m sure you’re thinking, but when it comes to the real world, it’s not always as easy to implement as it sounds. Well, I would completely agree with you.
Taking the risk to share your personal ideas with the team can make you vulnerable, while ensuring that ideas and strategies are “co-constructed” often requires usual protocols to be modified. Seeking constructive conflicts means that we need to override our natural tendency to harmonize our differences, while offering honest feedback during reflections can harm team relationships. All things considered, it’s easy to understand why most teams struggle to create a culture of learning.
Yet, it’s essential to team performance…so what do we do?
According to the data from Koeslag-Kreunen and her associates’ study, leadership within a team positively influences the extent to which members engage in learning behaviors (e.g., sharing ideas, reflecting, taking action, etc.). It’s undeniable that leadership can facilitate team learning – at least, according to the research.
Because team members usually don’t engage in team learning behaviour automatically, leaders have to guide their team as they pursue the process of learning. Leaders have to establish learning as a norm within their team, and they can do this expressing their own imperfections, tolerating failure, organizing reflection, and setting team goals.
As Summit’s president Scott Kress frequently discusses in his work, teams tend to take on the character of its leader. So if we want our teams to be focused on learning, as leaders, we must be.
But the findings from this study don’t stop there.
Surprise! Leadership is complicated.
When considering how we can approach leading a team towards learning and performance, there are several factors we need to consider.
First, how should we structure the leadership in a team? Koeslag-Kreunen and her fellow researchers describe two different potential leadership structures: “vertical” and “shared” leadership.
Vertical leadership is what we typically think about when we consider leadership – it’s the kind of leadership that stems from a single leader who is formally appointed to lead the team, and has a hierarchical influence on the team. In this structure, formal leaders provide feedback, guidance, offer consultation, and foster knowledge sharing.
But there’s also another form of leadership that we don’t talk about as often – shared leadership. In this leadership structure, team members are all engaged in the leadership of the team, and each guides their fellow team members at different times. The leadership is distributed among the team members here. The big idea is that by sharing the team leadership, team members are able to interact freely and equally without power differences, which leads to richer interactions and the chance to maximize the potential of the team. Theoretically, this kind of leadership is especially useful when dealing with complex tasks, where single leaders often can’t provide all of the answers.
Now what does the data say?
Both structures of leadership can significantly enhance and support team learning. However, it seems as if vertical leadership has a larger effect on team leadership than shared leadership.
But that’s not all.
Within vertical team leadership structures, there are also two styles of leadership.
The first of the two is person-focused leadership. Person-focused leaders are considerate (they aim to build a positive climate of cooperation and cooperation), empowering (they actively develop the self-leadership skills of their team), and transformational (they establish a compelling vision and purpose). These leaders foster team learning by encouraging communication, support self-management, and challenge team members to move beyond their self-interest.
Then, there’s tasked-focused leadership. Task-focused leaders gage resources and establish boundaries, initiate structure (defining the task, goals, outcomes, etc.), and focus the team attention towards the task and their performance. By emphasizing performance, task-focused leaders push their team to learn and to demonstrate their competence.
According to the data in this study, both person and task-focused leadership can support team learning. But here’s the catch – while person-focused leadership supports team learning in both structured and unstructured tasks, task-focused leadership is only beneficial for structured tasks, such as training, operating, and producing. Task-focused leadership inhibits team learning when the task is unstructured and requires creativity, such as designing, researching, and innovating. These leaders put too much emphasis on the task and over-structure the process – as a result, they impair their team’s ability to be creative and come up with new ideas and solutions.
Ultimately, the researchers recommend that leaders combine person-focused and task focused leadership behaviors, and shift between these styles based on the kind of task at hand.
But what do we do with all of this information…what does this all mean to real leaders, living in the real world (as opposed to, well, a lab)?
Here’s the point I want to drive home: we need leadership in teams in order to guide the team towards becoming comfortable with establishing a learning-focused culture in the team. But depending on the context, situation, and task, leaders need to employ different approaches to maximize the team’s learning.
Sometimes, it’s important to be that one leader in the team that guides the team towards performance. Other times, we need to spread out the leadership among the team and let different members of the team take on a leadership role at different times.
Also, sometimes, we need to be “person-focused” in our leadership style. Especially when the team is tackling a task that requires creativity and innovation, we need to be considerate, empowering, and transformational. However, if the team is tackling a task that doesn’t require as much innovation and creativity, we may just need to be a “task-focused” leader, providing our team with clear boundaries, structures, and goals.
At the end of the day, one of the most important lessons that leaders need to learn is the importance of being adaptable.
If we want our teams to be eager to learn, we need to be eager to adapt.
At Summit Team Building we have a series of training workshops that focus on leadership and team development and will help your teams and leaders develop the leadership skills they need to reach high performance.