Successful small team leadership: Manage the group, not the individuals

May 27, 2009

To help explain his recent research on "differentiated leadership," Angelo Kinicki turns to basketball -- specifically, his hometown Phoenix Suns.

Like most any team, the Suns have a roster that includes both high-performers (such as perennial All-Stars Amar'e Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal, both considered among greatest players in the world) and, well, slightly less than high achievers (such as deep reserves Stromile Swift and Courtney Sims, neither of whom ever seems to get off the bench).

But the fact is, the Suns are a team.

And while the gap between Stoudemire (21 points per game) and Sims (0 points per game) may be obvious on the stat sheet, Suns coach Alvin Gentry has little choice to treat these two vastly different players the same in the locker room. To do otherwise, Kinicki says, would be a disaster.

"Think about the Suns for moment," Kinicki says. "They have 12 players on the roster, and you have one true superstar in Amare. But if you do all these special things for him, if you treat him different than everybody else, the other teammates are before long going to say, 'Hey, this isn't right. This isn't fair.'"

Then the trouble would really begin.

Because, according to Kinicki, the more Gentry coddled his superstar, and the more he ignored his reserves, the more likely it would be those that those jilted players would begin to pout, grumble and complain. Their trust for Gentry would evaporate and, even worse, they might stop playing hard for him, too.

At the end of the day, the entire team -- even Stoudemire -- would suffer. And the losses would mount.

"And that's exactly what we're finding -- that there are problems when the leadership is differentiated in a team setting," Kinicki says.

That's the surprising conclusion that has emerged from research recently completed by Kinicki and two colleagues, management professor Anne Tsui and Joshua Wu of the University of Miami. The paper that resulted, "Consequences of Differentiated Leadership in Groups," is the first to challenge some long-standing beliefs about the benefits of so-called differentiated leadership -- a management style in which leaders treat individual staff members differently, basing their interactions with these workers on such factors as their skills, perceived value or personalities.

One For All or One-To-One?

The study focuses on two types of leadership: team-focused (idealized influence and inspirational motivation) and individual-focused differentiated (individualized consideration and intellectual stimulation) and determines how each impacts a team's effectiveness. These leadership behaviors are defined as follows:

Team-focused leaders treat the team as a whole. Their behavior is characterized by:

  • Idealized influence, including behaviors associated with being a role model, displaying high ethical standards, and sacrificing for the good of the team.
  • Inspirational motivation, by creating a vision of the future and displaying optimism and enthusiasm.

Individual-focused differentiated leaders treat team members differently, giving each member:

  • Individualized consideration, through behaviors that are supportive, encouraging, empowering, and helpful.
  • Intellectual stimulation, including behaviors that encourage employees to set challenging goals and to seek innovative solutions to organizational challenges.

"Most managers believe that you should treat everybody differently," Kinicki says. "But our results reveal that, while that approach may seem to make sense, you should realize that, in a team setting, it can actually lead to negative effects. That's our most important finding -- that there are real negative consequences when you adopt an individual-focused style of differentiated leadership."

The new study figures to raise some eyebrows among management researchers. For many years and to many people, differentiated leadership has been seen as a good thing.

It's easy to see why, Kinicki says. Differentiated leadership seems to be built on basic common sense: Not every employee works the same way. So why treat them the same way?

"There's a good bit of research out there that says leaders should treat everybody differently," he says. "It's the idea that effective leadership depends on the situation and the characteristics of the individual members of the team. So if I'm a supervisor of a team, the idea would be that I should maybe use considerate supervision with you, and then directive supervision with somebody else. For many years, that was the way to go."

There have been doubters, though.

Some researchers have questioned the value of this approach, noting that even when managers make sincere efforts to treat everyone equitably, most teams inevitably develop "in-groups" and "out-groups" anyway. This division can be destructive, and differentiated leadership, these researchers surmised, only seemed likely to make divisions even sharper.

"They were saying, 'What we're doing [with differentiated leadership] is basically giving people different [guidance], when we really should be treating them the same,'" Kinicki says.

With this study Kinicki and his colleagues sought an end to the debate to, at least with regard to small "team" settings.

The Evidence

For the study, the researchers examined 71 "teams" from eight companies spanning the healthcare, telecommunication, retailing, construction and recreation industries. The groups ranged in size from 2 to 19 people, and included units from customer service, retailing, marketing, product management, accounting, purchasing, human resource and engineering.

The researchers collected data from the groups via three web-based surveys that polled team members' feelings about their supervisors, those supervisors' management styles, and the overall health and effectiveness of their groups, as well as their place within them.

"We wanted teams that weren't going to be temporary teams, but rather teams that had been together for the long term. That was one of the trickiest parts, and we couldn't find just one organization that had enough of these teams, Kinicki says. "That's why we ended up using multiple companies, and as a result, our results are more generalizable."

The results were also quite robust -- and a little bit surprising.

Kinicki says the research team's evidence showed overwhelmingly that team-focused leadership was, in almost every way possible, more effective than differentiated leadership.

That was expected. What the researchers didn't expect, Kinicki says, was the next major conclusion: That differentiated leadership was not only less effective than group-focused leadership, but also downright damaging in team settings. In short, the researchers found almost no positive result for teams managed in a differentiated style.

"One style is good, one style is bad -- that's the message," Kinicki says.

It may sound simple, but Kinicki says the results were really just that stark.

According to the survey results, teams working under group-focused leadership were more likely to feel connected to their organizations and committed to their bosses. They were happier with their jobs and their roles in those jobs, and were generally loyal to their supervisors and hopeful for the future.

"Let's say I'm a leader and I have five members of my team, and I decide I'm going to treat them as a unit and talk to them as a unit," he explains. "When leaders do that, it leads to the group members thinking positively and identifying with their leader. They like him or her more. They support their manager's values and what he's trying to do. That, in turns, helps people feel better about their chances for success and for better performance down the road."

Differentiated leadership, to the great surprise of the research team, generated the exact opposite result.

"When leaders use individualized consideration and intellectual stimulation in a differentiated way team members do not identify with the group, and this in turn reduces the team's overall confidence in doing their jobs. This process ultimately leads to lower team effectiveness," Kinicki says. "And though we didn't test this, the impression we got is that when people see that their managers are treating some team members one way and others another way, they begin to think, 'Oh, I'm not being treated fairly.' It is this feeling of unfairness that may prompt team members to  not identify with their team and to lose confidence to do their jobs. That then has an aggregate negative effect on group performance. And that, I think, is a real 'Oh boy' kind of finding."

Indeed, Kinicki says the finding is so compelling that he would advise managers to be very careful using individualized consideration and intellectual stimulation in a differentiated way because until someone can prove otherwise, Kinicki says, the facts are clear: Differentiated leadership doesn't work in basketball.

And it doesn't work in business, either.

Bottom Line:

  • For years, numbers of leading researchers and practitioners have advocated the so-called "differentiated" style of leadership -- a style in which managers treat staff members differently based on their skills, personalities and other factors. 
  • Others have raised doubts about this management style, questioning its effectiveness and wondering if it could ultimately prove divisive.
  • A new study from W. P. Carey examined the relationship between two types of leadership behavior and team effectiveness. The study concluded that in this regard at least, team-focused leadership (in which teams are treated as units, rather than a group of individuals) is significantly more effective than the differentiated style in the realm of team management.
  • Surprisingly, the study also showed that differentiated leadership had negative impacts on group dynamics and, by extension, organizations as a whole.