The Truth about Teambuilding>
A Question of Style


Servant Leadership is Hard, But Helps Team Performance

Servant leadership requires a deeper level of humility than many of us possess. Servant leaders “persevere to be ‘servant first’ rather than ‘leader first’ and put their subordinates’ ‘highest priority needs’ before their own,” according to scientists Jia Hu and Robert Liden. They were quoting Robert Greenleaf, who coined the concept in the 1960s.

Can you do it? If you are or become a team leader, can you take all your desires for a promotion, better pay, greater recognition, and more, and make them lower priorities than your employees’ desires? Can you make their raises more important than your raises? Their career paths more important than your own?

These are ideals we associate more with religion than with business:

  • Zen Buddhist master Dogen-zengi said in 1240 that someone has wandered off the religious path if they think, “I am a business officer of the temple, so I need not bow to other monks.”
  • In the Koran, Mohammed records, “give us full measure and be charitable to us; surely Allah rewards the charitable.”
  • Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

Many of us speak of humility, charity, and mercy in our religious institutions, but find them hard to live back at the job site. In many companies, those who do not draw attention to themselves, who give away all the credit, and are kind instead of punitive are doomed to obscurity. I struggle with finding the right balance. It is not in my nature or my religion to stand on a corner and proclaim my beliefs. Yet if I do not set myself apart in the business world, I starve.

Why, then, would anyone perform servant leadership? Those who already do it surely would speak of the internal rewards. Those of us who struggle with our competing interests perhaps could use a more tangible reason. Hu and Liden, of the Dept. of Managerial Studies at the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago, may have found one.

Previous research has shown that a team’s belief in its ability (“team potency”) affects its performance. How to create that belief should be an important question for a team leader or member who wants their team to win. A study by Hu and Liden of 304 employees in 71 teams in five Chinese banks suggests that servant leadership is one answer.

They surveyed the employees on the following concepts, each shown with a sample statement from the scale:

  • Goal clarity—The “degree of clarity felt about my duties and responsibilities.”
  • Process clarity—Belief that “the procedures I use to do my job are correct and proper.”
  • Team potency—”The team I work with has above average ability.”
  • Servant leadership—”My manager seems to care more about my success than his/her own.”

Hu and Liden then asked two upper managers of each team to rate:

  • Team performance—The “overall level of performance that you observe for this team.”
  • Team-level organizational citizenship behaviors—”In general, the team members help others who have been absent.”

Notice the team leaders were not involved. Multiple employees rated each leader’s style, and multiple bosses of each leader rated the teams.

Teams had higher helping and performance ratings when they had “a clear view of their goals, paths to the goals, and the connection between their own work and the team’s goal,” the study says. Hu and Liden explain, “This serves to reduce possible conflicts between team members regarding their responsibilities and reduces the possibility of social loafing problems.”

But that’s not all. The researchers conclude, “goal and process clarity contribute the most to the emergence of team potency when accompanied by servant leaders, whose employee-centered focus is beneficial for facilitating team confidence and effective team behaviors.” Belief in the team related positively to better performance in their study. Without servant leadership, however, goal and process clarity had no relation to potency—or, in one correlation, a negative one.

Thus, Hu and Liden say, companies should provide training on servant leadership behaviors. These include, according to factor analysis of their related questions:

  • “Behaving ethically”
  • “Putting subordinates first”
  • “Helping subordinates grow and succeed”
  • “Emotional healing”
  • “Empowering”
  • “Conceptual skills”
  • “Creating value for the community”

I suspect most managers believe and try to act on most of these. Behaving ethically is not always encouraged in the workplace, however, as shown by the fabric of lies in the housing and financial industries that led to the Great Recession. Most companies do not empower their teams to a fraction of the degree they should for maximum performance. Many managers don’t want to hear the word “emotional,” much less take responsibility for emotional healing.

But that second item, “Putting subordinates first,” that’s the real bugaboo. Even knowing it is the right thing to do by most religious and philosophical systems does not lead most of us to practice it completely. So I’m not sure the practical outcome of better team performance will make a difference. My argument to skeptics of team empowerment that “people will know your decision led to the team’s success” has not proven persuasive over the years. There is a lot of pressure to put client needs over employees’ needs despite data suggesting the latter approach is ultimately more profitable. I certainly have put my ego ahead of employee interests at times when I was a manager. Putting subordinates first is a toughie despite the internal and external rewards.

Can you do it?

Source: Hu, J., and R. Liden (2011), “Antecedents of Team Potency and Team Effectiveness: An Examination of Goal and Process Clarity and Servant Leadership,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96(4):851.

Of Saints, Lamas, and Servant Leadership

Your ears perk up when a speaker who grew a company from 900 employees to 20,000 quotes a Catholic saint and a Buddhist lama in a talk about leadership.

Santo “Sandy” Costa is the retired president and chief operating officer of biopharmaceutical company Quintiles Transnational Corp., a former board member at the former Glaxo, Inc., and author of the book Humanity at Work. At Quintiles he oversaw the employee growth noted above and a rise in annual revenue from $90 million (US) to $1.7 billion. His speech before the North Carolina Chapter of the Project Management Institute (NCPMI) was a departure from the normal useful but staid talks about risk management and schedule controls. Too often motivational speakers say wonderful things I wish were true, but know are not. Not this guy. Without trying, he lined right up with the research about team leadership for the most part.

“If we help the people around us to succeed, we will (succeed),” he said. His businessman father did not talk about being responsible for 40 employees, Costa said. He talked about being responsible for 40 families. As you move up in a company hierarchy, Costa said, more and more of your job is to help others. Prefer to do the technical side of your job? Don’t accept promotions.

Costa said there are three things a leader must do:

  • “Get things done.”
  • “Understand people, and everything about them.”
  • “Understand yourself.”

This is a strikingly different list from the standard job ad for a middle manager. The ads always emphasize knowledge of this technical area or the other, and experience in the particular industry. Costa argues that two out of three job requirements should relate to “soft” skills, and I note that around 70% of a typical company budget is for people. These combined suggest 70 percent of any manager job ad and manager’s time should be dedicated to helping people get their jobs done.

The Catholic saint Costa quoted, Ignatius Loyola, was the founder of a monastic order known as the Jesuits. Costa said Loyola made sure his monks each day “reflected on their goals, how they saw themselves in the world.” He wanted them to ask every day, “How am I doing?” Costa said Loyola trained every monk to be a leader because he did not want any to think of themselves as followers.

The best manager I ever had, Peggy Durbin, then at Los Alamos National Laboratory, put this quote from the Catholic nun Mother Theresa in her e-mail signature: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” As I have probably mentioned too many times here, a consistent finding in business research is that empowerment is one of the most powerful means of raising productivity.

However, Costa said, “You can’t help others unless you help yourself.” He spent a notable amount of time on being aware of your own attitude. Costa talked about an uncle who could sit down to dinner and in 10 minutes take you from a good mood “to looking for a sharp instrument to end your life.” Costa’s brother called the uncle, “Mr. Sunshine.” Costa believes, “We are allowed to choose at any given moment how we will feel…” Quoting the Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama he added, “‘Pain is inevitable; suffering is not.'” I know this is not always easy to accept in the moment. When I first wrote this, I was having a rough week after a big work mistake and trying to remember, as Costa said, “Have mercy on yourself.”

Regarding work, Costa’s line that perhaps drew the most laughs was that no matter how many hours you work, “the number of people who attend your funeral will largely be determined by the weather.”

Costa’s definition of a team loosely fits the common scientific definitions: “a selfless group of people working toward a common goal.” But he went further to say, “The reason we work (in groups) is human beings are intensely social.” This brought to mind the idea of anthropologist Helen Schwartzman “that individuals in groups or organizations need to make decisions, or to develop or create problems or crises, because these are occasions for meetings, and groups and organizations… need meetings because it is through the meeting that the group or organization creates and maintains itself.” Humans are social animals, both are saying, and despite all the aggravations of group work, most of us would rather work together than alone.

My only quibble with Costa is with his list called, “Traits of a Leader”:

  • “Humble.”
  • “Respectful of others.”
  • “Compassionate.”
  • “Understanding of ‘constructive’ criticism.”
  • “Self-aware.”

I don’t disagree that these are valuable traits. But the scientific literature has failed to find any set of traits or qualities of a leader that improves performance in every kind of organization. And this set of traits is important for superior performance at any level of a company—that is, they do not differentiate a great leader from a great assembly line worker with no interest in leading. That makes the traits no less important, but they are not sufficient to define leadership.

Costa exemplifies what currently is called the “servant leader.” Earlier in his career it might have been called “leading from behind,” and before that the “reverse pyramid” (putting the workers at the top). He was also incredibly successful at making money for his corporation, creating compounded annual growth rates in revenue and net income of around 80%. I propose that the two facts are connected. If you think this is likely, I have a question for you: “How are you doing?”


  • Costa, S. (2011), “Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace,” speech to N.C. Project Management Institute, 3/24/11.
  • Schwartzman, H. (1986), “Research on Work Group Effectiveness: An Anthropological Critique,” from Designing Effective Work Groups, Goodman, P., ed. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco.

Not-So-Transformational Leadership

One of my favorite blogging activities was showing that many of the buzz words of management are nothing new, are unproven, or both. An example is “transformational leadership.” This is a popular management style focused on the leader’s charisma and extolling of shared values. According to, the term was coined by presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns in 1978 and popularized by a researcher in a 1985 book. That popularity is gauged by the 1 million links turned up by a Yahoo search on the exact phrase.

I advocate all of the behaviors attributed to transformational leaders. These include encouraging people to try new things, supporting individuals emotionally, articulating “the vision thing” (yes, there are hard numbers to support that recommendation), and being a role model. But whenever I saw transformational leadership discussed in the popular literature, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that the writers saw it as an either/or style that did not address lower levels of human motivation. A sense of mission is important to a team, but people always end up wanting to know, “What’s in it for me?” You may consider this selfish. I don’t, because it is basic human psychology. It becomes selfish when getting what you want is taken to the extreme of blocking others from getting what they need.

The study was another meta-analysis, the kind mentioned before in which researchers pull data from all relevant studies on a topic to see what the consensus seems to be. This team looked at more than a thousand data points from nearly 90 studies. The researchers concluded that transformational leadership overlaps so much with a goal-and-reward style of managing, it is fair to say the former is a layer atop the other that cannot stand alone. It is a good addition, linked with higher satisfaction from workers with the leader and higher job performance by the leader. But it is no better than the reward system for group performance, and worse on a couple of the leadership measures they found in the studies.

Clear losers in the study were managers whose only leadership efforts are to try to anticipate problems; worse were those who merely fixed problems after the fact; and worst of all were those who didn’t manage at all. On the other hand, if you try to get by with management by cheerleading alone, that won’t work. As if in support of this, another study I came across around the same time found student teams in a lab experiment who used “we” and “success” a lot as they talked through their work did worse than their competitors. The communications scientists in that study, who did not expect that result, speculated people talk about teamwork and performance when they don’t have them. In response to the insipid line, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,'” I have always pointed out there is no “we,” either.

On the history front, the meta-analysis found that the traits attributed to transformational leadership are so similar to an earlier style called “charismatic leadership,” there was no point to separating the styles statistically. Charismatic leadership dates as far back as a book published in 1921.

The study reinforces what I teach in my teamwork training about how to create high performance, such as:

  • Create a mission and/or vision for the team.
  • Set measurable goals for achieving it.
  • Let the team take the lead in creating a plan to meet those goals.
  • Set rewards for achieving the plan milestones and goals.
  • Let the team figure out its roles, internal rules, and processes.
  • Ask what it needs from you and supply that.
  • Monitor progress, praise profusely, and nudge the team when needed.

The words may change, but more often than not, the group management methods that work have been around for decades. It’s up to you to decide whether you’ve had enough of firefighting to do some fire prevention by putting them in place.


  • Gonzales, A., J. Hancock, and J. Pennebaker (2010), “Language Style Matching as a Predictor of Social Dynamics in Small Groups,” Communications Research 37(1):3
  • Judge, T., and R. Piccolo (2004), “Transformational and Transactional Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Test of Their Relative Validity,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89(5):755.

Shared Leadership: A Cure for Corporate Failures

“Leadership scholars are increasingly acknowledging that traditional, unitary approaches to leadership are likely suboptimal in team settings.” Translation: Objective study shows top-down team leadership, the way most business teams are led, is not the best way.

This is even true at the exalted level of the board of directors, argues the paper in the Journal of Business Ethics from which the opening quotation is drawn. Indeed, the authors suggest running boards as true teams using “shared leadership” could have prevented the corporate negligence that so scarred the global economy in the 2000s.

Maarten Vandewaerde of Hasselt Univ. in Belgium and his team of business professors surveyed years of studies about governance boards. They decided an over-emphasis on the role of the CEO “has turned board leadership into a black box as it has obscured any matter that deals with how the board team is actually led.” Only nine of the hundreds of sources in my teamwork bibliography are on top teams, and some of those include “C-suites” (CEO, COO, etc.) as well as boards. As one source noted, boards are notoriously resistant to outsiders observing their meetings. So Vandewaerde’s call for study into the internal workings of boards may be moot. Fortunately for those of us below that level, the article’s conclusions about shared leadership apply to any team, including yours.

The researchers quote another study saying shared leadership “resembles a “‘whack-a-mole’ game in which the person with the most relevant skills and expertise ‘pops up’ at any given time.’” A board exemplifies the kind of skill mix true teams usually display, having in a board’s case “business experts (e.g. current and former senior executives and directors of other firms), support specialists (e.g. accountants, lawyers, bankers, auditors), community influentials (e.g. politicians, academics), and insiders, who all have their own unique expertise and skills to offer to the team.” Under shared leadership, the lawyers will be given the lead on legal matters and the accountants on financial ones, but these experts are willing to listen to the others, the article says.

The authors make one of those points so obvious it is often missed: “one can only be considered to be a leader when perceived as such by one or more followers.” A job title does not make you a leader. Shared leadership takes this a step further because everyone on the team can “switch between ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ roles based on desired capabilities and expertise given the situation at hand.” I omit the citations here, but the article mentions many studies in saying that in “diverse contexts ranging from change management teams, work teams, and consulting teams to top management teams, shared leadership has been shown to significantly impact team performance.” Furthermore, “Previous research has in fact linked shared leadership to… higher levels of member satisfaction, trust, commitment, cohesion, and collective efficacy and potency.”

The reason the article appears in the journal it does is that Vandewaerde’s team argues shared leadership is more ethical than the usual style. “That is, instead of being subordinate to the unitary leadership of a hierarchical leader, team members are allowed the freedom to engage in a mutual peer influence process, thereby fully respecting their personhood and leaving the opportunity for them to develop and deploy their capabilities.”

Whether you care about bottom-line performance, good teamwork, employee happiness, or treating people ethically, you should be interested in shared leadership. Ironically, the authors say the titled leader plays a critical role in developing it. First off, leadership can’t be shared if the boss doesn’t share it. In the case of boards, the board chairman also “serves as a visible role model for the other directors through demonstrating desired behaviour, thereby encouraging them to partake in the shared leadership process as well.” The article continues:

“Beneficial Chairman behaviour also includes publicly reinforcing and rewarding appropriate team member leadership behaviour as it will encourage these members to continue on the path taken while also signaling role model behaviour to the other members, thereby creating a virtuous cycle of shared leadership. Furthermore, as not all individuals may have the natural tendency to emerge as leaders in a team, inviting and stimulating directors that may be more reserved in nature and therefore do not take the lead when desirable, and keeping others that dominate the rest in line, is essential to ensure that all board members contribute appropriately in the shared leadership process.”

The boss must intervene in the team’s processes to keep it from drifting from its planned direction. The art there, I think, is knowing when to disengage again. This is the difference between spotlighting problems and requiring their solution versus fixing them. “As such the constructive role of the board Chairman in a shared leadership approach can in essence be summarized as that of a supportive coach who fosters the effectiveness of the board by creating and maintaining the right circumstances in order to get the most out of the… perceptions, competencies, and resources that all directors bring to (the) board, while at the same time functions as a peer within the team.”

Because one or two people are not allowed to dominate, Vandewaerde’s team suggests, “Shared leadership may be of particular use in the prevention of corporate scandals like the ones that have shaken market confidence and stirred outrage throughout societies worldwide as well as smaller-scale corporate abuses.” Sufficient justification to use it, I say. For any team with people of diverse backgrounds, shared leadership has nothing but upsides. To get those benefits for your team, it’s time for you to become “Chairman of the Board.”

Source: Vandewaerde, M., W. Voordeckers, F. Lambrechts, and Y. Bammens (2011), “Board Team Leadership Revisited: A Conceptual Model of Shared Leadership in the Boardroom,” J. Business Ethics 104:403.

Shared Leadership Crosses Borders

I never see the term “decision by committee” used as a positive. Yet self-directed work teams have been highly successful in many situations. Whether you are a believer in group decision-making probably rests on your personal experience with such. If efforts you witnessed were marked by conflicts, or produced bland initiatives because everyone was avoiding conflict, you may wish the boss had just made the decision. Indeed, that might have worked out better. If, however, you have served on self-managed teams that created pleasant working conditions and measurable successes, you likely think group decision-making is great.

But maybe you are like me, having served on or supported both successful and unsuccessful teams. We would have a nuanced answer to the question, “Does shared leadership work?” We would say, “It depends.” It depends on whether the team had all the right members and supporters, a clear goal, enough information and time, a team charter, and used formal decision-making techniques. If so, the team works great. If not, it fails. Nothing earth-shattering there.

Julia Hoch, Craig Pearce, and Linda Welzel recently added more details to that list of dependencies. Hoch is a professor of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State Univ.; Pearce is at The Institute for Innovative Leadership, Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Welzel is at Technical Univ. Dresden in Germany. Her country is a critical player in this study. Overall, research has shown a positive impact from sharing tasks generally performed by a team leader among the various team members instead. However, the authors write in the Journal of Personnel Psychology, all of those studies were conducted in North America, mostly in the United States. And we Americans differ from much of the world by scoring as a whole very high on the value we place on individualism, according to a commonly used scale. The team wanted to know whether things would come out differently in Germany, which scores 25 points lower on the 100-point scale.

Hoch, Pearce, and Welzel surveyed 96 knowledge workers on 26 teams and their leaders in a German consulting firm. The workers were asked to rate how much their teammates performed behaviors from a list of, coincidentally, 26 typical leader behaviors. They were also asked how well they and their teammates coordinated their efforts, and the researchers calculated the age range for each team. Six to eight weeks later, the workers’ bosses were asked to rate their teams from 0% to 100% on “the quantity of performance, quality of performance, and budget performance, as well as the overall performance of the team.”

On average, shared leadership was linked to higher team performance in Germany, too. Add another data point to my crusade about people being more alike than different.

The details complicate the picture, however. Shared leadership apparently helped in a big way teams that did not have much variation in age or who reported poor coordination. In teams with more age range, where the older members likely took on informal leadership roles, or those where the coordination was good, shared leadership had a slightly negative relationship with performance. The researchers hypothesized that trying to maintain good coordination at the same time as performing leadership tasks took too much mental effort. When teams had both age similarity and low coordination, or their opposites, the effects were more pronounced.

So if your team has Boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y members, or you’re hearing no complaints about coordination, you don’t need to share leadership, right? Well, no, not right.

The study did not ask about the quality of the shared leadership, just whether it existed. It did not ask whether teams had charters and written procedures. It also isolated only a couple of factors. Your team might have a lot of other factors that argue for sharing leadership. I also should note that this was the first study to look at this combination of factors; the number of teams in it was small; and almost all the subjects were male. Furthermore, the study results suggest the risk of harm from introducing shared leadership is balanced by a much larger potential payoff. In fact, Hoch, Pearce, and Welzel specifically state, “our results support the value for strategic shared leadership training in organizations.”

The leadership behaviors they are talking about appear in the survey the team members used. For example, the subjects were asked to rate how much their team members:

  • “provide a clear vision of whom and what our team is.”
  • “are driven by higher purposes or ideals.”
  • “encourage me to rethink ideas which had never been questioned before.”
  • “seek a broad range of perspectives when solving problems.”
  • “encourage me to go above and beyond what is normally expected of one (e.g., extra effort).”
  • “have clear agreements and stick to those when we work together.”
  • “recommend more compensation” if the person performs well.
  • “give me positive feedback when I perform well.”
  • “decide on my performance goals together with me.”
  • “encourage me to search for solutions to my problems without supervision.”
  • “encourage me to learn new things.”
  • “encourage me to work together with other individuals who are part of the team.”

As with the previous post on servant leadership, I realize I am suggesting managers delegate much of their authority. The question again becomes, what is important to you? Do you want to be seen as a powerful leader? Or do you want your team to be the best it can be? Though the two are not necessarily exclusive, these studies and many others on empowerment show they often are. Over time, with proper implementation, I think gaining power by giving it up is the most powerful and least stressful way to success.

Source: Hoch, J., C. Pearce, and L. Welzel (2010), “Is the Most Effective Team Leadership Shared? The Impact of Shared Leadership, Age Diversity, and Coordination on Team Performance,” Journal of Personnel Psychology 9(3):105.

Visionary Leaders can be Categorized as Bad for Teams

Given the praise blanketed on “visionary” leaders, you probably assume they are good for teams. “Visionary leader behavior… can include maintaining high performance expectations, promoting followers’ beliefs in their ability to attain the vision, and helping followers to see how their work fits into the big picture,” a group of Dutch researchers say in a study report. They add, “Initial research shows that visionary behaviors are positively linked to team states, processes, and performance.”

However, “leader visions may also be radical, irrational, polarizing, or simply bad ideas,” the researchers go on to say, and “leaders’ visions may be heavily influenced by their own styles and beliefs.” In short, what if the vision is flawed? Logic suggests that if bad ideas are translated into the leader’s “high performance expectations,” that would be a problem for the team. A study by psychologists Lindred Greer, Annebel De Hoogh, and Deanne Den Hartog at the Univ. of Amsterdam, and Astrid Homan at VU Univ. Amsterdam, provides evidence for that logic.

The researchers performed a compelling study in 100 retail stores of a chain in the Netherlands. The team compared store financial performance (measured as sales per customer entering the store) to the manager’s use of visionary behaviors according to worker surveys. They also asked managers to rate themselves on these statements:

  • “I see that there are different categories of people within this team.”
  • “If I had to describe this team, I would do so on the basis of the subgroups I perceive within this team.”
  • “When this team works together, I have the inclination to sort the members in my head into smaller groups.”
  • “If I had to describe the team members, I would do so based on conspicuous categories.”
  • “This team is composed of people who fall into certain subgroups based on noticeable characteristics.”

Notice that nothing in those statements implies the manager prejudged people based on those categories. It merely rates how much the leader notices the categories. The results produced a dramatic graph:

This shows that a visionary leader who categorized little produced the best sales (see the dotted line). But the left side of the graph shows a store was far better off with a nonvisionary leader—whether or not they categorized much—than with a visionary leader who categorized a lot.

The psychologists also asked team members about communication in the store, using statements like, “There are enough opportunities for members to inform each other about work-related issues.” The combined effects of leader vision and categorization had similar but smaller impacts on the quality of team communication as on finances. This suggests that one way leader categorization hurt store performance was by reducing communication among team members. When the researchers filtered out the other factors they analyzed, better team communication was correlated to better revenues. So higher categorization may have hurt communication, which is one way it could hurt revenues.

I e-mailed Dr. Greer, and she kindly wrote back, “In the literature on small group interactions, research suggests that leaders that focus on a common group identity help people find common ground to overcome their differences. This suggests that leaders should not categorize or polarize themselves, but should help people from different backgrounds to find common ground to work together on.”

Hence, an unengaged leader who does not impact communication much overall may have a better-performing team than a visionary leader who unintentionally mentions categories like ethnicity, because this tendency could harden natural “us vs. them” differences within the team.

Applying this idea leads into tricky waters. “Indeed, everyone categorizes,” Dr. Greer wrote me, “but people vary along a continuum in how likely they are to make such categorizations.” Thousands of years ago, if a group of strangers appeared on the horizon that looked different from the clan you lived and worked with, you had to wonder if the others were coming to take your land. So categorization is hard-wired into our brains to help us survive. As I often say, though, it’s not what comes up that matters—it’s what you do with it. Recognizing differences does not mean you have to mention or act on them.

At the other extreme, if you ignore your human tendency to categorize, you cannot know if those categories are impacting your decisions. As a reporter years ago, I found the local school district was spending far more per male athlete than on females (even leaving out costly, male-only American football). From interviews I concluded the district was not purposely discriminating. It happened because no one in the district had thought to check. Many software teams I have worked with categorized developers by skill sets and seemed to forget that skills can be learned. They end up with bottlenecks and single-points-of-failure because only one or two people on the team can do certain tasks. When I recommend cross-training, they admit it is possible and see the benefits, but it had never occurred to them.

Even though this goes against the study data, as an exercise, think about the various ways your team could be categorized, not only gender or race, but job titles, skill sets, education, etc. Then for a week or so, pay attention to things you say and write to see if categorizations are leaking into your decisions and communications. If they aren’t, or are but only for logical reasons—expertise cannot be developed overnight—don’t worry about it. But be mindful of how categorization plays out in your words and deeds if you want your visionary leadership to help the team’s performance.

Source: Greer, L., A. De Hoogh, D. Den Hartog, and A. Homan (2012), “Tainted Visions: The Effect of Visionary Leader Behaviors and Leader Categorization Tendencies on the Financial Performance of Ethnically Diverse Teams,” 97(1):203.

Manager Passion for a Vision Led to Pleased Customers

“Although some managers dismiss visions as irrelevant to organization performance…” two management researchers wrote, “businesses need a purpose…” Since the context makes clear they are talking about vision statements, not hallucinations, they incorporated two magnificent understatements into a single sentence. But “an organization with a well-articulated vision can achieve sustained competitive advantage over those organizations lacking such a vision,” say Sooksan Kantabutra and Pasanu Vimolratana of Mahidol Univ. in Thailand.

The importance of mission or vision statements is barely debated anymore in the research literature. I can’t explain why middle managers and line workers in particular, even more so than top leaders, are so resistant to crafting simple statements of team purpose. My theory is it comes from a cynicism born of watching top leaders announce grand visions for the organization that are never again mentioned except in pep talks. The image of the “vision statement on the wall” that everybody ignores has become a business cliché because the vision is given no place in planning or doing the organization’s work.

So I think scientists have not found a link between competitive advantage and a “well-articulated” vision: The link is with a well-implemented vision.

Kantabutra, who has been researching the role of vision in business for years, ironically supported my point by guessing wrong in his study. With Vimolratana, he set out to explore how a leader’s passion for his vision translated into motivation behaviors, worker actions, and worker and customer satisfaction. Their assistants visited 111 clothing stores in 19 shopping centers scattered about Sydney, Australia. At each store, they asked the manager, up to three staff members, and three customers who made purchases to complete questionnaires.

Sadly, 26% of the managers had no vision. For the remainder, an interesting pattern showed up. A leader’s passion correlated with higher motivation behaviors and resulting staff satisfaction, as you might expect. Note that the passion ratings were not self-reported by the leaders, but were measured by staff perceptions of that passion and of whether the leader consistently backed the vision with actions. But none of the above factors had a direct connection to customer satisfaction, to the researchers’ surprise.

Kantabutra and Vimolratana, to their credit, openly admit only two of their 10 predictions (“hypotheses”) made prior to data collection were correct. I think that happened because they underestimated the role of employee self-motivation, and their data back this up. The only factor they studied that predicted customer satisfaction was something they called “vision guiding,” defined as “the extent to which a staff member (a) used his/her store manager’s vision to guide daily activities, and (b) felt emotionally committed to his/her store manager’s vision.” (Italics in the article indicated phrases copied from the surveys).

In my graduate school research on persuasion, it became clear that the goal should be to persuade the other person that your solution matches their motivations. The idea then becomes self-motivating for the persuaded. In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “when they accomplish their task and complete their work, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.'” In their model of how the factors link up, Kantabutra and Vimolratana thought staff satisfaction led directly to customer satisfaction. But as a customer you can’t see “satisfaction.” What you can see are “daily activities” and their results. As I’ve often warned, correlations between factors don’t prove which came first. But my educated guess is that a leader who had an effective vision and acted on it also took actions to motivate the staff toward it, who thus became more satisfied and more willing to act on the leader’s vision, which raised customer satisfaction.

What motivating actions did the leaders take? The researchers asked the staffers how much the leader would:

  • act as a role model for staff
  • build staff’s self-confidence
  • reward staff who acted consistently with the vision
  • provide resources and support services to staff
  • encourage staff to make more decisions regarding daily operations

For me, the fact that customer satisfaction was not merely measured with a single question makes the findings even more compelling. The customer surveys asked about specific factors like “staff availability, friendliness, decoration, presentation of goods, cleanliness,” and even things beyond the staff’s control, such as the quality and variety of goods.

I appreciate how scientists are careful to limit discussions of their findings to the study settings. Kantabutra and Vimolratana provide a charming example. In a section titled “Managerial Implications,” they write, “To improve customer and staff satisfaction, Australian store managers should espouse vision.” Not being a scientist, I will go a step further and say all managers should do so, based on how I’ve seen true teams make good use of mission statements. There is a fairly silly debate over the definitions of “mission” versus “vision,” but I don’t care what you call it. The point is that every team needs to know why it exists and where it is headed if the members are to become self-motivated toward carrying out the work.

Bearing in mind the company’s vision (if there is one), ask yourself—or better, ask your team—questions like:

  • Why does this team exist?
  • What are we trying to achieve, beyond earning a paycheck?
  • What would make you excited to come to work every day?

Then come up with a single, short sentence that captures the spirit of the answers and the support of every team member. By all means, stick it up on a wall and everywhere else you can think of. But that is not enough. Refer to it regularly in your decision-making. For example, if a team member suggests a project, whether you’re a team leader or member ask how that project will support the mission/vision. If it doesn’t, don’t support the project. If the team wants to do it anyway, fine. But then the vision statement needs to be changed, because the team is wasting labor hours (i.e., money) if its actions aren’t in line with its vision.

Or worse, it doesn’t have one.

Source: Kantabutra, S., and P. Vimolratana (2010), “Vision-Based Leaders and Their Followers in Retail Stores: Relationships and Consequences in Australia,” The Journal of Applied Business Research 26(6):123.

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