The focus of this post is leaders and how they are shaping collaboration among team members. Two characteristics of leaders will be discussed: Their position in the collaboration network and humility as a character trait.
A leader who is available and approachable has a central position in the collaboration network.
Humble people want to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and grow in public.
Thanks to humble leaders, fewer team members experience conflict when collaborating with others.
One tenet of social network analysis is that interacting with others requires time. As time is limited, people should be strategic about with whom they interact. Based on this perspective, not all interactions are equal; some are more important than others. Consequently, people should optimize their communication and eliminate redundant interaction partners. This perspective is a very economical and efficiency-driven view on human relations. While it may make sense on an individual level, what seems to be wasteful is in effect useful for the collective, as I will discuss in this post.
An interaction partner is redundant if you can reach that person in several ways. If Harry, Larry, and Mary are in a team, and Harry and Larry talk with each other, Mary only needs to speak with Harry or Larry. Whatever she says to one will reach the other, as the two guys talk with each other. From an economic perspective, interacting with Harry and Larry does not have additional benefits, only costs more time.
However, this view, of redundant interaction partners and wasted time, is only relevant at the individual level. What is a waste for a person is gain for the team. Teams, where many team members interact with each other, are stronger and more cohesive. In the above example, while Mary might be wasting her time talking to Harry and Larry, she contributes to a stronger team. That will benefit her in the future.
Claim: Teams whose leaders who have a central position in a team's communication network perform better than teams whose leaders are in a brokerage position.
In the figure above Anna, the leader, has a central position in the team’s collaboration network. Team members who interact with each other are connected with a line.
Central leaders have a better understanding of what is going on 'on the floor'. For leaders to understand the action on the ground, they need to interact with as many team members as possible.
"Interacting with as many team members as possible" means that leaders should have a central position. Thanks to this centrality, leaders have a good understanding of what is going on. Information is less likely to be distorted. There are also fewer subgroups, and thus the chance of internal conflicts between teams.
Important here is that while the leader is central, she is not the center of all the attention. The difference between being central and being the center is the level of collaboration that is happening in the team. In the figure below, the leader is in the center as there is hardly any communication between team members. It is an extreme collaboration network, called a star network.
Being central comes with personal disadvantages
It takes time to interact with people. Remember the example above about Harry, Larry, and Mary and redundant interaction partners. It's easier to talk with a couple of team members who then relay the information to other team members. But just as in the kids' game telephone, information can get distorted when it goes from one person to another.
Leaders lose personal brokerage power. If a leader interacts only with some key players from subgroups and there is no direct interaction between these subgroups, leaders can exploit their position (see figure below).
Claim: Humble leaders build bridges and avoid positions that have personal advantages.
Building on the earlier claim about central position, some leaders are more comfortable with this central position than others. Specifically, humble leaders prefer to build teams with many (redundant) interaction links. Taking an extreme case, when everyone talks with everyone, no one has a personal advantage as everyone has access to the same information. Humble leaders prefer that situation. Humble leaders are keen on learning from and with others. They want to understand their strength and weakness and understand the strengths of others. Hence, it is necessary to interact with people. As a result of this, humble leaders interact with many others.
Leaders also act as role models in teams. In doing so, a humble leader can make humble behavioral traits (e.g., learning from each other, being honest about one's strengths and weaknesses) the team's default behavior. The result is a team with a lot of interaction (high density in network terms).
Claim supported: Teams whose leaders who have a central position in a team's communication network perform better than teams whose leaders are in a gatekeeping position.
Prasad Balkundi and his research partners showed that there is more conflict in the team if a leader is in a gatekeeping position. Reversely if a leader is in a central place, there is less conflict.
The researchers measured the team's advice network to assess a leader’s centrality and gatekeeping position. An advice network is an interaction map between team members where connections are drawn between team members if they advise each other.
Claim supported: Humble leaders build bridges and avoid positions that have personal advantages.
The result by Chia-Yen Chiu and co-authors showed that humble leaders have a positive impact on the team. This impact happens mainly thanks to a reduction of negative relationships between team members. Team members who work under a humble leader experience fewer problems working with another team member.
Consequently, humble leaders' most significant impact is not that they stimulate friendships but that they advert the creation of negative relationships. It's not that team members like each other more; it's that team members dislike each other less. Thanks to these fewer negative relationships, team members are more likely to help each other out.
What does that mean for you?
There are two significant consequences for leaders from this research: First, leaders need to make themselves available. It is not enough to distribute tasks and talk with a couple of key players in your team. Leaders might have a (completely) wrong idea about who is a key player. Leaders will miss important information. Their chosen key players will sort information and unconsciously apply their own bias when relaying information to the leader.
Secondly, a leader who communicates clearly creates guidelines for interaction. They help team members build and sustain relationships and are making a safe work environment. Some example behaviors are to give credit where credit is due or to acknowledge weaknesses openly. By mentioning weaknesses, leaders clarify that this is an area they need to improve and thus open the door for feedback.
Listen: Unconscious bias by Hidden Brain
Read: Humble leadership by Dan Cable
Watch: How to lead in a crisis by Amy C. Edmondson
Balkundi, P., Barsness, Z., & Michael, J. H. (2009). Unlocking the Influence of Leadership Network Structures on Team Conflict and Viability. Small Group Research, 40(3), 301–322. https://doi.org/10.1177/1046496409333404
Chiu, C.-Y. (Chad), Balkundi, P., Owens, B. P., & Tesluk, P. E. (2020). Shaping positive and negative ties to improve team effectiveness: The roles of leader humility and team helping norms. Human Relations, 001872672096813. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726720968135
Han, S. J., Chae, C., Macko, P., Park, W., & Beyerlein, M. (2017). How virtual team leaders cope with creativity challenges. European Journal of Training and Development, 41(3), 261–276. https://doi.org/10.1108/EJTD-10-2016-0073
Obstfeld, D. (2005). Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50(1), 100–130. https://doi.org/10.2189/asqu.2005.50.1.100