Figure 14.2 McGrath’s Critical Leadership Functions
Source: Based on McGrath’s critical leadership functions as cited in “Leading Groups in Organizations,” by J. R. Hackman and R. E. Walton, 1986, in P. S. Goodman & Associates (Eds.), Designing Effective Work Groups (p. 76). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Leadership Decision 1:
Should I monitor the team or take action? The first decision confronting the team’s leadership is whether to keep observing the team or to take action to help the team. McGrath (as cited in Hackman & Walton, 1986) outlined the critical leadership functions of group effectiveness, taking into account the analysis of the situation both internally and externally and whether this analysis indicates that the leader should take an immediate action. Figure 14.2, “McGrath’s Critical Leadership Functions,” demonstrates these two dimensions of leadership behavior: monitoring versus taking action and internal group issues versus external group issues. As leaders, we can diagnose, analyze, or forecast problems (monitoring), or we can take immediate action to solve a problem. We can also focus on the problems within the group (internal) or problems outside the group (external). These two dimensions result in the four types of team leadership functions shown in Figure 14.2.
Quadrants 1 and 2 in Figure 14.2 focus on the internal operations of the team. In Quadrant 1, the leader is diagnosing group deficiencies, and in Quadrant 2, the leader is acting to repair or remedy the observed problems. Quadrants 3 and 4 focus on the external operations of the team. In the third quadrant, the leader is scanning the environment to determine and forecast any external changes that will affect the group. In the fourth quadrant, the leader acts to prevent any negative changes in the environment from hurting the team.
Therefore, the first decision confronting the team’s leadership is “Should I continue monitoring these factors, or should I take action based on the information I have already gathered and structured?” To develop an accurate mental model of team functioning, leaders need to monitor both the internal and external environments to gather information, reduce equivocality, provide structure, and overcome barriers. Fleishman et al. (1991) described two phases in this initial process: information search and structuring. A leader must first seek out information to understand the current state of the team’s functioning (information search), and then this information must be analyzed, organized, and interpreted so the leader can decide how to act (information structuring). Leaders can also help their information search process by obtaining feedback from team members, networking with others outside the team, conducting team assessment surveys, and evaluating team outcomes. Once information on the team is gathered, the leader needs to structure or interpret this information so that he or she can make action plans. Virtual teams operate under the same group dynamics principles and also need to monitor and intervene as appropriate (Berry, 2011).
All members of the team can engage in monitoring (information search and structuring) and collectively provide distributed or shared leadership to help the team adapt to changing conditions. In fast-paced, rapidly changing situations, the team leader and members might have to work in concert to assess the situation accurately. The official leader of the team might be too busy processing information from the environment to process information internal to the team. The team members can help the leader by staying on top of internal problems. Together, they can form an accurate picture of the team’s effectiveness.
In addition to gathering and interpreting information, team leaders must take the right action based on this information. Determining the right action to take is at the very heart of team leadership. It involves selecting from among competing courses of action to facilitate the team’s work (Barge, 1996). Leaders differ in their tendencies to take action quickly (hasty to act) or their tendencies to delay taking action by analyzing the situation at length (slow to act). “Hasty to act” leaders might prevent problems from getting out of control; however, they might not make the right intervention because they do not have all the information, and such fast action might undermine the development of shared leadership. “Slow to act” leaders might encourage other team members to emerge as leaders (shared leadership), but the action-taking delay might cause the team’s problem to become unmanageable.
The exact timing of a leadership intervention is as important as the specific type of intervention (Wageman et al., 2009). It has been proposed that groups go through developmental stages of forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning (Tuckman & Jensen, 2010). Certain behaviors are common and even expected at each of these stages. If, for example, conflict was occurring during the storming stage of team life, the leadership might not intervene at that time but just continue monitoring. Or, the leadership might choose an intervention that advances the team to the next phase of norming. Others have described three phases of group life and the leadership needed during each: (1) motivational coaching (at start), (2) consultative coaching (at midpoint), and (3) educational coaching (at end). The important aspect of timing is that the leader should understand where the team is in its life cycle and provide the type of leadership needed at that time (Hackman, 2012).
Leadership Decision 2:
Should I intervene to meet task or relational needs? Returning to the top box in Figure 14.1 (“Leadership Decisions”), the second decision confronting the leader is whether the team needs help in dealing with relational issues or task issues. Since the early study of small groups, the focus has been on two critical leadership functions: task and maintenance. Task leadership functions include getting the job done, making decisions, solving problems, adapting to changes, making plans, and achieving goals. Maintenance functions include developing a positive climate, solving interpersonal problems, satisfying members’ needs, and developing cohesion. These two functions have also been referred to in terms of performance and development (i.e., how well the team has accomplished its task and how well the team has developed effective relationships).
Superior team leadership focuses constantly on both task and maintenance functions (Kinlaw, 1998); both types of leadership behaviors (task-focused and person-focused) have been found to be related to perceived team effectiveness (Burke et al., 2006).
Task functions are closely intertwined with relational functions. If the team is well maintained and has good interpersonal relationships, then the members will be able to work together effectively and get their job done. If not, they will spend all of their time infighting, sniping, and working at cross-purposes. Similarly, if the team is productive and successful in accomplishing its task, it will be easier to maintain a positive climate and good relations. Conversely, failing teams often take their lack of performance out on each other, and fighting teams often accomplish little.
In virtual teams connected across time and space by electronic media, it is important to focus on both task and relational issues (Han & Beyerlein, 2016). The focus on building team relationships is even more critical for virtual teams than in traditional co-located teams. Virtual team leaders must be able to “read” all the personal and contextual nuances in a world of electronic communications. They must be able to understand the possible causes of silence, misunderstanding, and slights without any of the usual signs to guide them. Leaders must be sensitive to the team process and must pay attention to even small matters that could interfere with the team’s success (Pauleen, 2004). Virtual teams place even greater demands on team leaders—50% more time investment—than the more traditional co-located team (Dyer, Dyer, & Dyer, 2007).
Research suggests that leaders of virtual teams should begin the team with face-to-face meetings, if possible, to facilitate trust, comfort, and rapport. In addition, virtual team leaders need to focus on project management and regular, organized team meetings. However, virtual team leaders need to be careful not to be too task focused and to also work to develop social relationships among the team. Virtual team leaders also need to keep literate in all new communication technologies and know when to use them for optimal teamwork (Humbley, O’Neill, & Kline, 2009). As the prevalence of virtual teams expands, specific leadership issues and interventions related to these virtual teams are increasingly becoming the focus of study (Berry, 2011; Cordery, Soo, Kirkman, Rosen, & Mathieu, 2009; Zaccaro, Ardison, & Orvis, 2004).
Leadership Decision 3:
Should I intervene internally or externally? If a decision was made to take action or intervene, the leader must make the third strategic leadership decision in Figure 14.1 and determine what level of the team process needs leadership attention: internal leadership actions or external leadership actions. Do I need to intervene inside of the team, or is the problem external to the team? Effective team leaders analyze and balance the internal and external demands of the team and react appropriately (Barge, 1996).
Is there internal conflict between members of the team? Then perhaps taking an internal relational action to maintain the team and improve interpersonal relationships would be most appropriate. Are the team goals unclear? Then perhaps an internal task intervention is needed to focus on goals. Is the organizational environment not providing proper support to the team to do its job? Then perhaps an external environmental intervention focusing on obtaining external support for the team might be the most appropriate intervention.
The current focus of research is on real-life organizational work teams that exist within a larger organizational environment. In addition to balancing the internal task and relational needs of the team, the leader has to help the team adapt to and function effectively in its environment. Most teams focus on the internal problems of the team. But it is increasingly important for teams to also be externally oriented to “reach across boundaries to forge dense networks of connection, both inside and outside the organization” so that they can deal effectively with the fast-changing environment (Ancona, Bresman, & Caldwell, 2009).