How Strengths-Based Leadership Affects Teams

“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.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

2 thoughts on “How Strengths-Based Leadership Affects Teams”

  1. This post has me thinking . . .

    I just had a group of leaders in a room yesterday talking about managing teams – and one of the topics was around understanding individuals from a strengths perspective. I would like to dig into this research a little more to better understand what it is saying, but my first response is that I still believe you have to do both well – focusing on individual needs and the needs of the collective team.

    My other thought is that leaders really own the responsibility for defining, driving, and any review/revision of the group purpose that is referred to above. The team and the members will get lost in the execution of things – so the larger vision and general accountability of the execution of things is what the leader needs to own.

    I can see the research pointed towards each leader getting lost in ‘ownership’ of individual needs/alignment with roles if they felt that THEY were the owners of that – but I think that is wrong. People are more productive/engaged when they are doing things that are both a strength and a passion, but leaders don’t own it, they enable it. I always tell individuals they own trying to figure it out and encourage leaders to enable it through transparent discussions on individual strengths, weaknesses, job alignment/enrichment, and career goals. I also agree that high potential discussions can be very disruptive, and could largely go away or seem less obvious if a leader could effectively transfer primary ownership of individual job enrichment/career development to individuals and just become an enabler/supporter.

    Thanks for making me think a little. I look forward to better understanding this research and how it challenges/aligns with what I think.


    1. Check out the study for sure. To me this cause for a lot of confusion is in how variable teams are. There are levels of interdependency in each team. For instance a highly tactical team that relies on each members actions in order to be able to act would not seem to benefit from individualized strengths-focus. A team of sale representatives, who have their own clients but share office space and knowledge would stand to greatly benefit from this kind of training. It all depends the type of team.

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