Reducing or even removing formal leadership does not lead to more equality within self-managing teams as formal leadership tends to be replaced with a stronger informal hierarchy. To ensure that team members can collaborate, a leader must instead offer a clear structure, so that team members need not fight over leadership.
These are the conclusions of University of Groningen researchers Jacoba Oedzes, Gerben van der Vegt and Floor Rink and their colleague Frank Walter from the Justus Liebig University Giessen. They have published their findings in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
Every team in which people work together has a hierarchy. Many organizations are trying to reduce this hierarchy by weakening the position of the formal leader or by not appointing one at all, like in self-managing teams. This should allow team members to collaborate on a more equal basis. However, hierarchy has an important function: it ensures that there is always someone who makes decisions and steers the group. So, can we really do away with leadership or hierarchy?
The researchers show that reducing or removing formal leadership certainly does not lead to more equality within teams. ‘Quite the contrary’, says Oedzes. ‘The absence of a formal leader leads to a stronger informal hierarchy. Compared to teams with leaders, self-managing teams even create more informal inequality. The same applies to teams with leaders that offer little direct guidance.’
The effect is particularly noticeable in groups that work on complex tasks, Oedzes and her colleagues conclude: ‘Those are situations that require a clear structure the most, either provided by a formal leader or through informal hierarchy’.
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