“When leading a group, should the leader pay differentiated attention to individual members and the group as a collective simultaneously?” This is the question raised by Joshua Wu, Anne Tsui, and Angelo Kinicki in a recent Academy of Management Journal publication. Their study of 70 work groups in eight companies found that successful team leaders manage the team, not the individuals.
If you have bought the prevailing wisdom that managing the strengths of individual group members is the best way to manage your group, you could be making a big mistake. This study found that if you provide highly differentiated leadership to each member of your group, you will indeed increase the individual self-efficacy of those individual members. But the increased individual self-efficacy had a negative effect on the group’s collective efficacy, and a negative effect on the group’s effectiveness.
Group collective efficacy, on the other hand, had a significant positive effect on group effectiveness. The researchers measured collective efficacy with items that assessed the all kinds of tasks the group might perform, not specific tasks any single group member might perform.
Group collective efficacy resulted from group-focused rather than individual focused leadership. Group focused leadership produced group identification, which in turn produced a collective sense of efficacy among group members. This is the type of leadership where group leaders specify the importance of group members having a strong sense of collective purpose and mission in working with the group as a whole.
Popular thinking on leadership asserts that effective leaders must not only inspire the group as a whole, but must also be attentive to the unique needs of each and every individual in the group. The results of this research suggest “that leaders who attempt to satisfy both individual and group needs may inadvertently compromise group processes and group outcomes” (p. 101).
If your individualized approach to leadership creates a group full of members where some have high self-efficacy and see themselves as “high potentials” while others do not, you are likely sub-optimizing the performance of your group as a whole. The differences in individual efficacy among group members affects how they feel about each other and their ability to accomplish things together. This is especially critical when group tasks require extensive interdependence among members.
When group performance matters, and people need to work closely together for the group to be effective, the belief that “we can do it” is more important than any individual’s belief that “I can do it.” If you lead a group like this, you probably want to keep that strength-based snake oil on the shelf.