Your leadership style might be impacting your team’s creativity and efficiency

Type the search term ‘leadership style’ into Google and you get 593,000,000 hits. That’s a lot of people saying a lot of things and in many instances, repeating much of what has been said before.

So it was interesting to come across some new research in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology which looked at what drives a person to a certain leadership style and subsequently, what impact this might have on their team.

The research

The Chinese research team aimed to build on our understanding of existing leadership models. They used the Blake-Mouton managerial grid which suggests leaders take a people-oriented or a task-oriented style; and the Path-Goal theory of leadership by Robert House, which suggests leaders opt for a directive or participative style.

What the researchers were interested in was what drives a leader to use a particular style. To understand this, they drew on two key theories:

  • Regulatory mode theory – how people approach situations to achieve a goal. One mode is locomotion, which focuses on action and getting on with the task at hand. The other mode is assessment, which focuses on comparing different options which might help achieve a goal.
  • Regulatory fit theory – when focus on a goal matches the means used to achieve that goal, making it feel right to pursue it.

Pulling all of this together, the research team explored if how a person prefers to approach goals influences which leadership style they opted for. And subsequently, if their subsequent leadership style impacts team efficiency and creativity.

“…when behaviours adopted by the team leader fit their regulatory orientations, the leadership value is maximized”

To understand these questions, the researchers surveyed 75 team leaders and 295 employees cross 75 project teams in a large Chinese management consultancy.

The first survey was sent out to all participants at the start of the month. The team leaders were asked to provide demographic data and rate statements which helped understand regulatory mode. Employees answered questions about team leaders’ leadership behaviour.

A second survey was sent out at the end of the month. This only went to team leaders who were asked to rate team efficiency and creativity.

The findings

  • Leaders who indicated a preference for locomotion (i.e. action orientation) tended to assume a directive leadership style. These leaders tended to have higher levels of efficiency in their teams but lower levels of creativity.

“High-locomotion individuals in a position of authority are likely to instruct followers to take action and complete work goals”

  • Leaders who indicated a preference for assessment (i.e. reviewing before action) tended to assume a participative leadership style. These leaders tended to have higher levels of team creativity. However, the findings were not significant enough to be able to state confidently that participative leaders had lower levels of team efficiency.

“Individuals high in assessment orientation are likely to adopt a collaborative behavioural style”

Implications and ideas

Some caution needs to be taken with these findings. The research only focuses on a snapshot of time. In the world of project management things can happen on long-term projects which might have impacted the findings had it been carried out over a longer period of time. There are also implications around culture. The Chinese culture which demands high levels of obedience and respect for hierarchy; and organisational culture, where large management consultancies tend to have set ways of doing things.

Whilst it is important not to generalise the findings, there are still some useful prompts for leaders to reflect on.

Understand your context. Taking the time to think about your industry, organisational and team context can help you determine which kind of leadership style is likely to pay off. This is particularly important when moving from one context to another, for example moving from a global blue-chip company based in Hong Kong, to a local health care trust in the East of England. Therefore, it can be helpful to consider similarities and differences and the tactics you might use to hit the ground running.

Understand your style. It was Socrates who was alleged to have said, “Know thyself”. This is an important maxim for anyone in a leadership position. Be under no illusion of the impact you have on those around you, especially your immediate team. If your team needs to have high levels of creativity but your style is more directive, then you may find that the autonomy and engagement needed with creativity just isn’t there. Tools such as the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire can help you identify strengths and development needs.

Understand your impact. This research reinforces what we already know – that a leader’s style has an impact on their team. However, if you’ve never taken the time to find out what your team think of you then you’re probably operating with some blind-spots. If your organisation has a formal 360-degree feedback system then you can tap in to this. Alternatively, you might want to do your own version with a coach. This is something I do a lot with senior executives – asking three simple questions (What do I do well as a leader? What do I do less well? What do I need to start doing that I’m not already?) I’ve often found that the insights senior leaders gain from this kind of analysis can speed up their leadership development significantly.

Remember, one size doesn’t fit and these three ideas underline the importance of adapting your style in order to get the best out of any given situation.

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Research reference:

Li, G., Liu, H. & Luo, Y. (2018). Directive versus participative leadership: Dispositional antecedents and team consequences. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 91(3), 645-664.

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