Skip the Support: Members Respond Best to Coaching and Directing
Being friendly and approachable is one way for leaders to invite a speak-up culture. But new research co-authored by Gilad Chen at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business shows how supporting behavior can backfire when teams come together to perform a specific, immediate task.
“Emphasis on social inclusion and empowerment might work well to promote voice in some situations,” says Chen, the Robert H. Smith Chair in Organizational Behavior. “But it can be ineffective and even counterproductive within action teams.”
The study, based on observation and survey data from 105 surgical team episodes, measured the effectiveness of three distinct leadership behaviors during two project phases — preparation and execution. Chen and his co-author, Smith School PhD alumna Crystal Farh, now a management professor at the University of Washington, also considered team members’ prior familiarity with one another as an additional contingency.
Unlike regular teams that work together on an ongoing basis, action teams typically complete a task and then disband or wait for their next assignment. Examples include medical teams at a hospital, kitchen staff at a restaurant, emergency responders at a disaster scene, and airline crews on a flight.
Each time an action team assembles, members must navigate the preparation and execution phases while working within their structured roles. “Shifting team composition across episodes also means that members must readily collaborate, sometimes with little prior experience working together,” the authors write.
With so much uncertainty, getting action team members to voice concerns and share opinions can be tricky. “Surprisingly, supporting behavior did not enhance voice in either phase, and in fact exhibited negative effects on voice in the preparation phase of more familiar teams,” the authors write.
One reason might be the emphasis on immediate results within action teams. “Although some theorists have argued that interpersonal processes are needed to enhance motivation and resolve conflict during action engagement, these functions may be less necessary in action teams where the work is inherently motivating,” the authors write.
Team members don’t need much cheerleading, for example, when they are saving a patient’s life, landing an airplane or putting out a wildfire. Time constraints inherent on action teams also reduce opportunities for interpersonal conflict to arise.
Although supporting behavior fails to promote voice, the study identifies two other leadership interventions that work well on action teams.
First, leaders can clarify members’ team assignments by articulating who is doing what and when. This is called directing. Second, leaders can help members gain task-relevant skills. This is called coaching. “Leader directing promoted voice in both the preparation and action phases,” the authors conclude. “Coaching also facilitated voice in both phases, especially in the action phase for more familiar teams.”
Read more: Leadership and Member Voice in Action Teams: Test of a Dynamic Phase Model is featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology.