The Team Tightrope: How managers can negotiate the balancing act between individual and group needs

Inspiring a team to go forth and conquer demands more than just forging a common purpose – effective leaders must motivate members at a personal level, too. A new study explores how best to manage individuals and the whole team at the same time.

Teamwork propels competitiveness in today’s companies and teams have become an increasingly popular model for organizing the workplace. But teams are made up of individuals ­- and this can pose a significant challenge for managers eager to optimize performance by getting the very best out of all their staff. Effective leadership demands an approach that both motivates individuals while enhancing the performance of the group as a whole.

A study that zooms in on this delicate balancing act, “Exploring the Dual-Level Effects of Transformational Leadership on Followers”, examines how managers can inspire individual team members while simultaneously boosting teamwork. The conclusions of professors Xiao-Hua (Frank) Wang of the Vlerick Business School and Jane Howell of the University of Western Ontario push forward theoretical work on leadership and provide a valuable tool for managers and trainers.

New Challenges: Teamwork and Leadership

A trend towards teamwork in the corporate environment poses new challenges for managers, who are expected to lead individuals and groups at the same time while balancing the demands of these roles. It can be a formidable task: while the capabilities of individual workers are one of the main factors driving a team’s performance, if some staff lack skill or ability this can hamper a manager’s team-building efforts. At the same time, a manager may be in charge of capable individuals, but if they do not trust and support each other they will not perform well as a team.

Past research has examined what a leader must do to boost performance by focusing primarily on the team as a whole. However, scholars have yet to consider how leaders interact both with the individuals that make up a team, and the team itself, at the same time. As a result, say Wang and Howell, we cannot fully understand team leadership yet.

The professors pose a question that managers are increasingly asking: what different types of approach do they need to take to motivate individuals and the whole team at the same time? The duo set out to answer this by investigating the effect of “transformational leadership” on individual and group performance. This notion has provided the most influential theories of leadership in recent decades.

A transformational leader is someone who paints a compelling vision of the future to staff, stimulates team members, recognizes their individual quirks, and helps them to develop their strengths by enhancing their abilities and skills and improving their efficacy and self-esteem. When it comes to teamwork, the transformational leader aims to treat all members of the team equally and to make them aware of the importance of shared goals with a view to inspiring them to work together.

Theories: The Search for Consensus

Researchers have not been able to agree about whether transformational leadership operates at the individual or group level. Previous leadership studies have typically focused on either individuals or the group to the exclusion of each other, and have not investigated both at the same time.

In order to address this issue, Wang and Howell propose a “dual-level” model of leadership that distinguished between a manager’s behaviour towards individuals and towards groups. They take previous work further to explore the simultaneous effects of leadership on
both individuals and groups.

Motivation: Individuals and Groups

Wang and Howell examined theoretical work suggesting that transformational leaders motivate and influence their staff in distinct ways - as individuals and as a group – and then set out to explore these different forms of behaviour. On this basis, they developed a scale identifying four aspects of transformational leadership aimed at individuals and three aimed at groups.

When it comes to individuals, transformational leaders aim to attain a performance among team members that exceeds expectations, and research has demonstrated that this can have a positive effect both on how a worker performs and on his or her personal initiative. A transformational leader can achieve this by exhibiting the following individual-focused behaviours:

  • communicating high expectations of excellence and quality in an individual’s work, for example through performance reviews, thereby encouraging him or her to set ambitious goals
  • enhancing the skills and abilities of staff by paying close attention to each individual’s needs, acting as a coach or mentor and providing learning opportunities. For example, a manager can provide regular feedback to staff, give them responsibility, and pose challenging assignments to help them learn
  • stimulating staff by encouraging them to be creative and to think outside the box. A manager can, for example, offer workers a degree of autonomy in how they approach problems and challenge them to come up with novel solutions
  • praising and acknowledging staff at a personal level for achieving goals or developing new approaches

When it comes to teams, transformational leadership is likely to boost overall performance by stressing a team’s collective identity and shared vision and by encouraging co-operation. Transformational leaders will enhance the ways in which team members help each other by fostering trust and co-operation. Managers can do this by displaying the following team-focused behaviour:

  • emphasizing the team’s identity by stressing the uniqueness of the team and highlighting the shared characteristics of its members, in order to encourage them to put the good of the group ahead of self-interest. A manager can, for example, use social gatherings or team meetings to express pride in its achievements
  • communicating a group vision - an idealized picture of the group’s future – to inspire and motivate team members. A manager may, for example, talk passionately and confidently about what the group is capable of achieving and instil confidence into team members that the vision can be fulfilled
  • team-building, which aims to promote co-operation and foster trust among staff. A manager can do this, for example, by assigning team goals, rewarding team achievements, and encouraging social events

In order to test their scale, Wang and Howell hypothesized that individual-focused leadership behaviour would be positively related both to how individual staff perform tasks and their personal initiative, and that group-focused leadership behaviour would be positively related to a team’s performance as a whole and how its members help each other.

The Research: Sample and Method

Wang and Howell developed their scale of transformational leadership behaviour by referring to existing leadership studies and by consulting fellow scholars and the human resources executive of a large Canadian firm with businesses across diverse sectors.

After an initial pilot study, they then evaluated the reliability and validity of their scale with a sample of 60 mid-managers and 203 team members of the company. Team leaders rated individuals’ performance while team members reported on how their leaders behaved towards them as individuals and towards the group as a whole and on their colleagues’ helping behaviour.

The results confirmed the researchers’ predictions that transformational leadership behaviour aimed at individuals would positively affect their work and initiative, and that aimed at teams would boost their performance and how team members helped each other.

Implications: A Tool for the Future

This research has important implications for the study of leadership at a theoretical level and will be of significant practical value to managers.

First and foremost, Wang and Howell’s study addresses the shortcomings of previous research that fails to distinguish between individual-focused and team-focused leadership behaviours. By explicitly exploring how transformational leaders can motivate individuals and teams at the same time, the study builds a much more complete picture of leadership while responding to critics of past research. Their dual level transformational leadership scale will be an invaluable tool in future research.

Second, their scale offers a more comprehensive overview of how transformational leaders behave by incorporating elements overlooked in other research. In particular, it acknowledges how leaders motivate individual staff by having high expectations of them and setting them challenging goals, and boost their competence and confidence through recognition and acknowledgement of their efforts. It also identifies how effective managers engage in team-building to strengthen group co-operation.

Third, Wang and Howell’s research complements previous work which found that team performance would be dampened if a leader only pays attention to some followers but not to others. Their conclusions lend support to findings that effective leaders need to show an interest in all team members equally otherwise those who feel ignored may drag down the group as a whole.

This pioneering study also contains clear practical lessons for managers and offers a highly useful tool for designing training programmes: team leaders need to display different sets of behaviour to motivate individual followers and teams as a whole.

To boost individual performance, they should set challenging goals and express confidence in their staff, act as both coach and mentor, stimulate team members to be creative, and recognize their achievements.

To drive the team’s performance, they need to foster collective identity by stressing the group’s shared values and uniqueness. To do this, they must paint a compelling vision of the team while encouraging co-operation and building trust among its members.

Related article

Wang X-H. Howel J.M. 2010. Exploring the Dual-Level Effects of Transformational Leadership on Followers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2010, Vol. 95, No. 6, 1134– 1144.

& Rankings

Equis Association of MBAs AACSB Financial Times