Shared Leadership: What Do Employees Think About It?
In this post, Henrico van Roekel of Utrecht University details research he conducted on healthcare employees who were given the opportunity, in an experimental setting, to share leadership – essentially flipping the script on traditional examinations of shared leadership. He details his research in the new paper “Examining employee willingness to execute shared leadership: The role of leadership behaviour, gender, age, and context” appearing in the journal Leadership.
Traditionally, we were all used to having a manager whom we report to. Yet in some situations, employees don’t necessarily need a formal leader anymore. Instead, they could be executing shared leadership, which means leadership is divided among employees in the team instead of concentrated with one person.
From previous research, we know that the success of shared leadership depends on the attitude of the manager: they must be willing to give up their position. But we actually know little about how employees feel about shared leadership. And, if they are open to the idea, what kind of shared leadership they do or do not want.
In a recent study, I conducted a large-scale experiment among 6,742 healthcare employees. I presented them with various leadership tasks in dilemma format, and varied multiple characteristics of the leadership tasks. I then asked them to choose which task they would like to do.
The results show that a notable proportion of healthcare workers are willing to exercise shared leadership. But their willingness does depend on a number of factors.
First, I found willingness depends on the task they have to perform. Employees prefer tasks that are about building relationships (like being a confidant for the team) or driving change in the team. More mundane tasks, like chairing team meetings, were less popular. Besides, employees prefer tasks that take less time and tasks that allow them to help others.
Second, not every employee is equally willing. Employees who are male or younger are more willing than female or older employees. We also find that employees are slightly more willing to share leadership during, rather than after, a crisis.
It appears that if you ask employees, shared leadership can, with some reservations, be a successful leadership approach. From this study we learned which factors may contribute to the success or failure of shared leadership: the specific leadership behavior that is to be shared, personal characteristics of the employees involved, and context play a role.
At the same time, we also need to take a critical look at the reasons behind the preferences expressed by employees. The fact that female healthcare employees are less willing to execute shared leadership could be due to the ways in which they are treated differently from male healthcare employees at work. It is important to take such underlying, systemic causes into account.
In sum, shared leadership is a promising leadership approach that implies giving employees a voice. This study has contributed to understanding shared leadership by doing the same: listening to what employees themselves have to say about it.