Together, the concepts of Shared Leadership and Mobility complement each other very well. They empower teams to work together more collaboratively and flexibly, and as a result, end up being more successful overall.
But when these concepts are not operating in unison, we wondered if they could still produce similarly positive outcomes. Would a team with a Hierarchical Leadership structure, for example, be able to use Mobility to the same advantage as a team with Shared Leadership?
Curious to find out, we conducted a short experiment at last October’s Organizational Development Network (ODN) Conference.
For the experiment, we gathered a group of organizational psychologists, change management consultants, and internal organizational development specialists, and divided them into four teams. Then we took a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, split it into four, equally-sized sections, and gave one section to each team. The teams then had 30 minutes to complete their individual quarters and, as a room, assemble the whole puzzle on a separate table called the “Boardroom Table.”
But to make things more interesting, we gave each team a different set of rules to work by. Two teams had Mobility, which allowed all their members to move around their tables during the exercise, while the other two teams had to remain in their seats.
The other variable was the type of leadership. Two teams had Shared Leadership, meaning any team member could access the Boardroom Table. The other two teams had Hierarchical Leadership, where each team appointed only one leader who could access the Boardroom Table.
According to research, Shared Leadership has many benefits. Firstly, it boosts team effectiveness and performance. Compared to a more traditional or vertical leadership structure, Shared Leadership makes the team feel more confident, engaged, satisfied, and trustworthy.
Secondly, Shared Leadership encourages more team members to express their own leadership behaviors, increasing the overall variety of leadership types that the team experiences. Shared Leadership usuallyemerges when team members strive toward shared goals, give each other recognition and emotional support, or feel that their voices are heard.
After leadership, Mobility may not seem like a big deal. You may already utilize Mobility in your daily routine by say, leaving your desk to go to a conference room for a meeting. But when taken to the next level, Mobility means employees have real autonomy to choose where they work. This can empower them to structure their day better and in turn improve both their personal and team performances.
In theory, Mobility unlocks many powerful opportunities. It allows people to get to know and work with others from different departments and teams, it helps create informal connections among employees, and in turn, it facilitates strongcross-collaboration.
During their 30 minutes assembling the puzzle, we observed some interesting trends and behaviors among the participants:
- Group 1 (Mobility & Shared Leadership) finished their puzzle section the fastest.
- This alone doesn’t tell us much about team performance, since the four quarters of the puzzle differed in their degrees of difficulty. However, when Group 1 completed their corner of the puzzle, all the team members went to help other groups still working on their sections.
- Group 1 also figured out a smart way to transport their finished quarter to the “Boardroom Table,” which they shared with other groups.
- Group 2 (Mobility & Hierarchical Leadership)sent their leader as a “scout” to check on other teams.
- Although this group was given Mobility, no one used it to change seats during the exercise.
- One member said she didn’t move because she was comfortable with solving the puzzle from her original perspective.
- Another member said he has established a routine and worried that changing seats would disrupt his routine.
- These reasons for staying put were eerily similar to reactions employees typically have when they’re asked to transition from their old offices into Activity Based Working offices.
- Group 3 (no Mobility & Shared Leadership)had a member who wasn’t able to work on the puzzle like everyone else because of a shoulder problem.
- As people worked through the puzzle, she communicated several times that she wanted to help out on the side, but she felt that nobody cared or tried to include her in the team.
- The participant sitting next to her later apologized, saying he assumed from her body language that she was “sitting this one out,” and therefore didn’t more proactively engage her.
- Another team member was frustrated with not being able to change seats because she said alternating perspectives helped her when she felt stuck.
- Group 4 (no Mobility & Hierarchical Leadership)had a very rebellious leader who refused to play by the rules. She directed her team to move around if they needed to and brought several team members to the Boardroom Table to work on the puzzle.
- The leader didn’t participate in the puzzle task herself and instead watched and directed her team.
- The rest of the team members either hovered around the Boardroom Table or sat in their original seats and stopped paying attention to the puzzle.
- One participant joined the session late and tried to fit in by asking their team members to explain what was going on. However, the team members felt pressured by the time limit, so they did not bring the newcomer in at all.
After finishing the puzzle, we asked the participants to talk about how they thought the exercise went. This discussion proved to be rather enlightening, and their feedback revealed new areas to explore how Mobility can be used to achieve Shared Leadership.
Some of their most poignant points were:
- Does Group 1’s behavior suggest that Mobility paired with Shared Leadership can enhance corporate citizenship behaviors, such as helping other teams and sharing knowledge?
- Did those in Group 2 stick with one way of working (instead of trying out alternatives) because they have a more Hierarchical Leadership?
- The comments from Group 3 about their “disengaged” team member suggested that our assumptions about others might prevent us from hearing their real needs. Could a lack of mobility prevent people from taking on Shared Leadership and helping each other out?
- What can we learn about the unconventional leader who doesn’t follow the rules? She seemed to have won over a few of her members, but in the process, lost others’ engagement.
By letting participants perform the same tasks through different leadership and mobility arrangements, they were able to empathize across teams and clearly share their experiences, assumptions, and thoughts on how they worked with each other.
Our experiment reminded us that no two teams or organizations are exactly alike, and that simply allowing for increased Mobility will not create Shared Leadership. Management must also encourage employees to take advantage of their mobility and give them the vantage points to appreciate their shared goals if they want their employees to truly collaborate and empower one another.
Tailoring these approaches to fit your particular office may take a little experimenting, but the result is worth the investment in a more human-centric workplace.