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Emerging as a Leader: The Impact of Contributions in Leaderless Teams

Nov. 19, 2020

By Justin Walker

Remember group projects in high school—the ones where the teacher would assign members to each group but not assign a leader? How did tasks get accomplished without someone leading? In most cases, someone on the team did assume the role leadership role, maybe even without verbalizing it. But how does that occur?

"Contributions made by individuals in self-managing teams affect their emergence as leaders within the team," Assistant Professor of Management Stephanie Kunst said. "When a member's contributions meet the team's task demands, he or she is more likely to emerge as a leader."

Kunst and her colleague, Crystal Farh from the University of Washington, studied this phenomenon in their research, which was published in an article titled "Dynamic Leadership Emergence: Differential Impact of Members' and Peers' Contributions in the Idea Generation and Idea Enactment Phases of Innovation Project Teams" in Journal of Applied Psychology.

"This study looks at how the types of contributions a member makes toward the team's objective affects the extent to which he or she emerges as a leader while also taking into account the task demands associated with the phase of the team project and what the other members on the team are contributing," Kunst said.

Kunst and Farh looked primarily at creative teams—groups coming up with new ideas, solutions or products. Such groups usually operate within a creative cycle, which consists of two phases: the idea generation phase and the idea enactment phase. Within either phase, there are two types of contributions an individual can make to further the group's progress: constructive and supportive.

Constructive contributions consist of new ideas being suggested by a team member, typically those that have not already been considered by the team. Supportive contributions, however, express support for an idea that already exists. The type of contribution each member provides affects how he or she is perceived by the other members on the team, Kunst said.

To understand the impact of either contribution on a member's emergence as a leader within the creative cycle, Kunst and Farh evaluated leaderless innovation teams made up of business students from a large Midwestern university in the United States over the course of two studies. The first study featured 379 students on 97 computer-mediated teams generating new product ideas for meeting college students' needs. Following idea generation, the teams then developed documents diagraming the product and messaging for endorsing the product to potential investors. The second study consisted of 50 face-to-face teams with 189 students in total. These teams were tasked with creating an egg safety device by producing design ideas during the idea generation phase and then building a prototype in the idea enactment phase.

"We hypothesized that in the two phases of the creative cycle, the impact of one type of contribution versus the other on leadership emergence would matter more in one phase than in the other," Kunst said. "We found that constructive contributions really drive how individual members are perceived by their peers as someone who is influential in the team when teams are in the idea generation phase. Those who make suggestions in this phase meet the team objective: to explore and generate a list of new ideas to consider. We also found that this effect was amplified when no one else or few others on the team were also making constructive contributions; no one else was meeting the team's needs."

Kunst and Farh also hypothesized that supportive contributions would matter more in the idea enactment phase than in the idea generation phase. The team's task demands shift in the idea enactment phase from exploration for new ideas to converging on one idea to try bring it to more tangible fruition as they are running out of time and resources. However, neither study supported this hypothesis, Kunst said.

"This is what I found most interesting," she said. "This finding challenges a lot of what is assumed about when, how and why people emerge as leaders within the creative cycle. Theoretically, supportive contributions should matter more for leadership emergence in the idea enactment phase than in the idea generation phase, but we found no difference. It turned out that supportive contributions had more of an impact on leadership emergence in the idea generation phase than we anticipated."

The inconsistencies between what the theoretical framework suggested would happen and what the researchers found fascinated Kunst. Had the inconsistencies existed in only one study, it could possibly be explained away by limitations of the sample or study design. But when two studies show the same conflicting results, it points to a need for further exploration and opens the door for more research in that particular area.

Understanding how leadership emergence can take place in creative teams is important, Kunst said, because the type of leadership you have down the road can affect the team. Knowing how, why, and when a team member could become a leader allows for managers to better anticipate who might emerge as leaders in self-managing teams and potentially enable them to foster leadership emergence of specific individuals.

"At the end of the day, we want to hit that target of high performance and produce a quality final product or service, so we often have a detailed plan of action," Kunst said. "But if we do not understand what happens in the middle that impacts the final outcome—that moment when someone becomes a leader—in some ways we've sabotaged our plans before they get off the ground."

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