Team Leadership

Understanding the Motivational Contingencies of Team Leadership”, by D. Scott DeRue, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Christopher M. Barnes, U.S Military Academy at West Point, New York, and Frederick P. Morgeson, Michigan State University, East Lansing, was the most frequently read article in Small Group Research in 2010. D. Scott DeRue has provided a personal perspective on the article.

Team leaders can take a directive approach where they focus on setting the team’s direction, assigning goals, settings expectations, providing task-relevant instructions, setting timelines, and giving feedback when performance problems arise. Alternatively, team leaders can take a more coaching-oriented approach where they focus on helping team members learn to operate on their own without directly intervening in or managing the team’s work processes. Interestingly, prior research suggests that both of these team leadership approaches can be effective. Our study establishes the conditions under which each of these team leadership approaches is more or less effective.

We conducted this study because we were curious about why these divergent approaches to team leadership can be equally effective across different teams. Indeed, we learned that a directive approach was more successful when team members were confident in their abilities. Having observed many of these teams in action, it seemed to us that a directive approach to leadership was harnessing the energy that confident team members had and pointing that energy and effort in directions that led to higher team performance. At the same time, we also learned that coaching leaders can be even more effective than directive leaders, but only when those individuals are charismatic. We expect people are finding this article particularly interesting because it shows that divergent styles of team leadership are more or less effective depending on both leader and follower characteristics – a finding that really highlights the contingent nature of leadership in teams.

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