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Shared leadership

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Recent studies indicate that team performance tends to deteriorate when one person is responsible for most leadership functions, such as imparting a sense or purpose, cultivating motivation and engagement, as well as offering support and advice. Instead, teams perform more effectively, fulfilling their goals and targets, when most or all the individuals demonstrate these leadership behaviors (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007), referred to as shared leadership.



Shared leadership describes contexts in which leadership and influence is distributed across the teams (Pearce & Manz, 2005). Some definitions of shared leadership highlight the roles of individuals within a team. That is, shared leadership refers to teams in which many, if not all, the individuals demonstrate leadership, influencing other members as well as providing direction, fostering motivation, and offering support (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007& Pearce & Conger, 2003). The average extent to which each member provides leadership reflects shared leadership.

Although related, some definitions emphasize the capacity of teams, conceptualized as an integrated unit, providing leadership (Ensley, Hmieleski, & Pearce, 2006). For instance, to assess this form of shared leadership, individuals answer questions such as "My team members provide a clear vision of who and what our team is" (Pearce & Sims, 2002). Both definitions distinguish shared leadership from vertical leadership, in which a single person imparts direction and influences individuals (Pearce & Sims, 2002).


The concept of shared leadership emerged from the worm of Gibb (1954), who formulated the notion of distributed leadership. Gibb challenged the traditional assumption that leadership should reside in a single individual and argued that such roles should be dispersed across the team.

According to Carson, Tesluk, and Marrone (2007), several recent trends have underscored the importance of shared leadership. The complexity of teams, coupled with frequent changes to their role and structure, reduces the likelihood that a single person has acquired the skills and competencies to fulfill the gamut of necessary leadership functions successfully. In addition, the prevalence of self managing teams, especially in the United States, underscores the importance of encouraging members to demonstrate leadership behavior.


Several studies attest to the benefits of shared leadership. First, shared leadership has been shown to enhance the perceived effectiveness of teams, as rated by members themselves (Avolio, Jung, Murry, & Sivasubramaniam, 1996). Furthermore, shared leadership coincides with the effectiveness of teams, as rated by managers as well (Pearce & Sims, 2002). In addition, shared leadership is correlated with more objectives indices of performance, such as team sales (Mehra, Smith, Dixon, & Robertson, 2006) and growth in revenue (Ensley, Hmieleski, & Pearce, 2006).

Studies have not closely examined the mechanisms that underpin these benefits. Conceivably, as Katz and Katz (1978) conjecture, shared leadership could augment the likelihood that individuals feel invested in their team, fostering a sense of commitment, as well as increase the application and sharing of knowledge and resources (see also Lovelace, Manz, & Alves, 2007).

Some research has attempted to explore the mechanisms that underpin the benefits of shared leadership. For example, Solansky (2008) showed that shared leadership confers a sense of team efficacy--a sense the team has developed the necessary skills tol be competent and effective. In addition, shared leadership was also positively related to transactive memory, which is the extent to which members recognize the talents, skills, and knowledge of each other (Solansky, 2008).

Several factors could, potentially, affect the utility of shared leadership. Carson, Tesluk, and Marrone (2007) posit that shared leadership is more likely to be beneficial when the culture is egalitarian, not hierarchical, when the tasks are complex, and when the roles in the team are interdependent.

Factors that moderate the benefits of shared leadership

Power dispersion

The level of power that individuals or groups experience might also moderate the effects of power dispersion on conflict resolution. In particular, as Greer and van Kleef (2010) emphasizes, in most organizations, some departments or teams are not as powerful or influential as other departments or teams. When departments or teams are not powerful, hierarchical workgroups are more likely than egalitarian workgroups to resolve conflicts. Specifically, because of their limited power, individuals often accept the existing systems. They also attempt to satisfy the needs of other people rather than embrace risks. They will, therefore, be reluctant to challenge the hierarchy. Power struggles, such as attempts to undermine someone else, are not as common.

In contrast, according to Greer and van Kleef (2010), when departments or teams are relatively powerful, egalitarian workgroups are more likely than hierarchical workgroups to resolve conflicts. Specifically, because of their sense of power, individuals are not as inclined to merely satisfy the social norms of their environment but instead are more sensitive to their personal need, preferences, and aspirations (see perceived power). They do not always respect the hierarchy and, thus, power struggles are common. Thus, if the workgroup is hierarchical, conflicts often persist. If the workgroup is egalitarian, the motivation to change the system and engage in conflict diminishes.

Greer and van Kleef (2010) conducted a field study and a laboratory study to validate these arguments. In the field study, 42 existing workgroups in an organization completed questionnaires. In this company, all employees are assigned a number, from 1 to 5, that represents their level or position. The average level in a workgroup represented the mean level of power associated with that team. The variability of these numbers in a workgroup represented a measure of hierarchy or dispersion in power. Furthermore, each of these workgroups was granted 15 minutes to complete a task in which they needed to share information.

Independent judges observed these discussions, rating the extent to which power struggles were exhibited. That is, members who attempted to dominate each other, argue about hierarchy, or seek control were assumed to demonstrate this struggle. The degree to which conflicts were resolved effectively and rapidly was also assessed.

Consistent with the hypotheses, if members of the workgroups, on average, were not powerful, power struggles were more common, and conflict resolution was impaired, in egalitarian teams. In contrast, if members of the workgroups, on average, were powerful, power struggles were more common, and conflict resolution was impaired, in hierarchical teams (Greer & van Kleef, 2010). Thus, hierarchy is beneficial in workgroups that are not powerful but damaging in teams that are powerful.

Thus, shared leadership might be beneficial in teams that are relatively powerful. However, shared leadership might not be as constructive in other workgroups.


Shared leadership is more likely to emerge when individuals share a common purpose and when members offer social support to one another (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007). Furthermore, an external coach to the team, who is helpful, sensitive to the needs of this team, and confident in the capabilities of these individuals, also facilitates shared leadership (Carson et al., 2007).

Some demographic factors seem to affect shared leadership. Generally, shared leadership is more pronounced in larger teams-although whether this relationship persists even when the number of individuals exceeds seven has not been explored closely (Carson et al., 2007).

Practical implications

Managers should encourage each member of the team to demonstrate leadership. In particular, they should convene meetings with each person separately. During these meetings, they should identify the strengths, interests, and values of each individual. Second, they should encourage this person to utilize these qualities, perhaps in motivating team members, providing clarity and direction, or offering support and advice. Third, the leader should highlight that one of the core values of this workgroup is to identify innovative means to assist one another. These practices are effective because supportive coaching and a supportive environment are the principal determinants of shared leadership (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007).


Several measures or indices have been constructed to gauge team leadership. First, in the study conducted by Carson, Tesluk, and Marrone (2007), participants in a workgroup rated the leadership of every other member in turn. Specifically, they evaluated the extent to which the team relies on the leadership of each person on a five point scale. They then added these responses together and divided by the number of possible relationships among team members, yielding an index that is referred to as density in the social network domain.

Second, in many other studies, each member of the team rates the leadership displayed by the team as a whole, with questions such as "My team members provide a clear vision of who and what our team is" (Pearce & Sims, 2002). These responses are then averaged across members of each team (see also Avolio, Jung, Murry, & Sivasubramaniam, 1996& Sivasubramaniam, Murry, Avolio, & Jung, 2002).

Finally, in a study conducted by Mehra, Smith, Dixon, and Robertson (2006), respondents nominated which members of their workgroup they perceive as leaders. Diagrams of networks were then created and visually inspected to ascertain whether or not they represent distributed leadership.


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Last Update: 6/8/2016