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Research: When Employees Work on Multiple Teams, Good Bosses Can Have Ripple Effects

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Research: When Employees Work on Multiple Teams, Good Bosses Can Have Ripple Effects

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If you’re like most people working in an organization today, you’re probably on multiple teams at the same time. Most employees have multiple assignments and projects that they must constantly juggle and prioritize. In fact, research estimates that between 81% and 95% of employees around the world actively serve on multiple teams simultaneously.

The problem with all of these teams is that there is some evidence that “multiple team memberships,” or MTMs for short, can increase employees’ stress and role overload, which makes it very difficult for employees to effectively fulfill all of their roles. MTM employees often rotate back and forth among their many projects during a typical workweek (and even in a single workday), hurting their ability to focus effectively on each project. With this in mind, we wanted to know what employers who use MTMs could do to make sure that employees are able to develop and contribute their talents, as well as coordinate and learn across their multiple team assignments. Moreover, given that leaders in most companies vary in how effective they are, what happens when the multiple team leaders that employees report to have very different leadership styles? What impact do these differences have on employees’ abilities to perform, take risks, and display initiative?

In an article that we recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology along with Professors Pengcheng Zhang from Huazhong University of Science and Technology and Jiing-Li Farh of China Europe International Business School, we sought to investigate how companies can best manage MTMs using three studies with employees and their team leaders from both the U.S. and China. We focused on how leaders in MTM settings motivate their employees to be proactive, such as volunteering ideas for improving work procedures. We examined these proactive behaviors because they are critical for team success as well as coordination and learning across teams.

Previous work suggests that employee empowerment — or having autonomy and confidence to know where and how to perform meaningful and impactful tasks — is crucial for motivating employees to be proactive. As a result, we wanted to know whether leaders’ behaviors toward team members in one team can “spillover” to affect the empowerment and proactive behaviors of those same team members in other teams led by different leaders. Importantly, we wanted to find out if highly positive leader behaviors in one team could compensate for less positive leader behaviors in other teams. Specifically, we examined whether one leader’s empowering leadership (marked by delegating authority, promoting autonomy, coaching supportively, sharing information openly, and asking for input on decisions) influenced whether MTM employees felt more empowered and were more proactive in another team led by a different leader, even if the other leader was less empowering.

We conducted the first study with working adults in the U.S. and China. Using a realistic workplace scenario experiment, we asked people to imagine working simultaneously on two different teams led by two different team leaders. We randomly assigned them to one of four scenarios in which the two different team leaders varied in 1) giving employees autonomy to make their own decisions and asking them for advice and input (i.e., high empowering leadership) or 2) micromanaging the employee and never asking for advice or input (i.e., low or no empowering leadership). Therefore, participants experienced empowering leadership in both of their teams, in only one of their teams, or in neither of their teams. Then, we asked how much the participants felt empowered in their jobs as a whole.

We imagined that there might be a “cancelling out” effect, where having a more controlling leader in one team would negate the positive effects of having a more empowering leader in the other team. The good news is that this was not the case. Instead, we found the opposite: that the more empowering leader actually “compensated” for the micromanaging leader, producing fairly high levels of overall empowerment and proactivity across the teams. The bottom line was that a good boss can compensate for a bad one for employees working on multiple teams, at least when it comes to employees feeling empowered and being proactive.

To test whether our experimental findings would hold in actual organizations and across different cultures, we conducted two more studies: one at a set of R&D companies in China and the second at EA Engineering, Science, and Technology Inc., an environmental consulting company headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. Work at EA is heavily team-based, and as an employee-owned public benefit corporation, the company needs collaboration and consensus to balance profits and stakeholder management. As a result, the average EA employee works on six distinct project teams at any given time.

We also wanted to see if our findings held when we asked how empowered employees felt in each of their unique teams, not just overall. For instance, would employees with one empowering team leader feel empowered and act proactively even in other teams led by less empowering leaders? As expected, we found that when a leader exhibited more empowering leadership in a specific team, employees felt more empowered and were more proactive in that same team. And, more importantly, we found that a leader’s empowering behaviors in one team did “spillover” across team boundaries to increase empowerment and proactivity in the other team. In fact, this happened even when the leader of the other team did not display any empowering leadership behaviors towards that employee.

Taken together, the best news is that even if employees have a bad experience with a disempowering team leader in one of their teams, all is not lost, as long as the employees belong to other teams that are led by more empowering leaders.

What should managers do based on our findings? The most straightforward — and perhaps obvious — advice is to help leaders learn the skills it takes to boost employee empowerment. Specifically, leaders should be trained to empower their followers by delegating authority to them on important tasks, giving them as much autonomy as possible, supportively coaching as employees take on more and more responsibilities, sharing as much strategic and important information as possible, and asking for input when making key decisions. Research consistently shows that when managers engage in these behaviors, employees react by taking initiative and behaving proactively.

But what if not all of your leaders have these skills? Worse, what if some of them tend to micromanage their direct reports? One possibility is to “spread the wealth” so that empowering leaders are strategically assigned to benefit employees in a variety of divisions, units, or areas throughout a company. Our research shows that it’s not a good idea to concentrate all of your empowering team leaders in one area of an organization. If that happens, MTM employees who are stuck with a bunch of disempowering leaders will be less empowered and less willing or able to be proactive for the good of the overall company. As a result, senior managers need to carefully assess their leaders and then strategically deploy highly empowering leaders throughout their organization.

September 26, 2018 at 05:14PM

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