Leadered and Leaderless Teams in the Classroom
Abstract and Keywords
There are trends in the use of teams in the classroom that stimulate both theory development and pedagogical innovation in this important area. In particular, three classroom applications are (1) building group process skills, (2) developing team leaders, and (3) using teams to learn course content. Of particular interest are new possibilities for utilizing leadered rather than leaderless groups, systematizing team coaching interventions, and enriching team-based learning. In this field of study, it is clear that pedagogical innovation and theoretical development interact to enhance student learning. Continued exploration in both aspects is encouraged.
Teams are ubiquitous in the management classroom today, and smart research is needed to help instructors make informed decisions about how to use them. This article focuses on how management courses can build group process skills, develop team leaders, and enlist teams to learn content. The goal is to help instructors improve the decision-making, productivity, and satisfaction of future team members and leaders in both the classroom and the workplace. This field of inquiry is dynamic and at times controversial, offering many possibilities for theoretical and pedagogical innovation.
When analyzing teams and groups, applying a few definitions sets important boundaries. To begin with, in the organizational world, the terms “team” and “group” are used interchangeably, and that practice is followed here.
Fundamentally, a “team” is not the same as a “working group.” Working groups interact very little when completing a task, while teams rely on collective action to produce work products. In teams (in common parlance often referred to as “real teams”) members are jointly responsible for their output; teams have common goals, take a common approach, and share mutual accountability (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, 2005). Most business school groups are real teams.
A “high-performance team” is a sort of real team on interpersonal steroids: In such teams, members commit themselves to helping each other to grow personally and to succeed. Finally, a group that should be working toward common goals but is failing to do so is less a team than a “potential team.” Most business school teams are neither high-performance teams nor potential teams, but fall somewhere between them.
When designing a team, a manager has many decisions to make. Is the team the right size? Is it small enough to interact effectively, yet large enough to encompass both the necessary process approaches along with technical expertise? Does the team have the optimal complementary skill set for the project at hand? Does it have both technical knowledge and interpersonal expertise? Analogously, instructors design teams that are appropriate for their particular classrooms, considering both the goals of their classes and the diverse skills and characteristics of their students and institutions.
Pedagogical and theoretical research helps instructors make crucial course design decisions. This paper examines three main areas for research: (1) identifying which team characteristics are important, (2) deciding which team leadership skills matter, and (3) discovering which team factors contribute to learning. In addition, throughout the paper the practicalities of implementation in the classroom are considered.
Before these points are reviewed these in depth, the context will be set with a brief look at where team skills are usually taught in business schools.
Courses That Build Team Skills
In business school curricula, at least three types of courses include teaching team process and leadership skills. These are the dedicated group skills course, the course-as-organization, and the organizational behavior survey course. An additional dimension is added to these courses when they are taught in online or blended environments.
In the dedicated group skills course the entire focus of the learning objectives is to develop group skills both theoretically and experientially. In such a course, instructors can teach a full range of such skills, beginning at the individual behavioral level and moving all the way through to the level of organizational interface (Hess, 2007). Sometimes, such courses are designed around small class sizes that permit such pedagogical luxuries as having each student assume a leadership role for significant periods during the semester, or even eliciting a personal psychological analysis of the experience (Gibbard, Hartman, & Mann, 1976).
In the second type of course, the classroom itself is defined as an organization, and it is managed as a hierarchy run by the students and the professor (Betton, 1991; Cohen, 1976; Doherty, 1998; Hannah & Venkatachary, 2010). When the instructor makes a point of giving each student an opportunity to lead, such a course can be said to meet basic learning objectives for developing leadership skills in addition to group process skills.
The final and most prevalent type of course in which team skills may be taught is the traditional organizational behavior survey course. In this type of course, with its relatively large enrollments and wide-ranging topical coverage, finding the opportunity to develop team skills is more challenging. However, most professors of organizational behavior seem to believe rather strongly in the importance of groups, and so doggedly pursue the pedagogical opportunities groups present in even this challenging setting.
Next is an examination of teams as a fundamental building block of organizations. The focus will be on theoretical and pedagogical research that informs instructors about how students can acquire process skills to become effective team members.
Building Group Process Skills
In most courses that use teams, the foremost pedagogical goal is that group members should learn how to both analyze and practice effective group process. But what is group process, really, and how can it be operationalized in the classroom?
A textbook review of team process is likely to include the following topics: (1) designing a team; (2) setting a clear and energizing direction for the team; (3) coaching the team by choosing people with team potential, developing group roles, monitoring participation, developing an ethical group process, and delegating and empowering; (4) recognizing the pitfalls in group decision-making, including overreliance on concurrence seeking, social facilitation, and social loafing; (5) running an effective meeting; and (6) interfacing with the broader organization (André, 2008). Some of these topics include team leadership, although process is often taught in leaderless groups (Chen, Donahue, & Klimoski, 2004; Costigan & Donahue, 2009). Any one of these topics could be an interesting subject for research. However, in recent years innovative basic research has addressed in particular the separate topics of team roles and team leadership.
From a theoretical standpoint, one useful way to conceptualize group process is to examine the variety of roles team members may adopt (Mumford, Van Iddekinge, Morgeson, & Campion, 2008). To provide coherence to the team task role literature, Mumford, Campion, Morgeson, Weekley, and Ployhart (2006) identified ten unique team member roles in three categories. The first category, task roles, includes carrying out the work that meets the team’s objectives. Social roles encompass such aspects as communication and cooperation. Finally, boundary-spanning roles include coordination with others outside of the team and representing the team’s interests within the organization. Applying this data-derived typology can help instructors determine learning goals for their classroom teams and help researchers to tie those roles to group effectiveness.
Developing team leadership skills is seen increasingly as an important focus of group process research. For example, to improve learning, Hess (2007) presents a classroom practicum approach to developing leadership skills. André (2011) describes how giving each student an opportunity to lead his or her group adds to process learning. Other research suggests that in the classroom, having team leaders improves performance. Ferrante, Green, and Forster (2006) observed that in the undergraduate classroom team performance is higher when teams have formal leaders and those leaders are incentivized than when teams lack formal and incentivized leaders. Also, they found that social loafing is lower in the leadered groups. This emerging research stream is addressed next.
Developing Team Leaders
When it comes to developing team leaders, the instructor’s challenge is less a paucity of theory than a paucity of classroom techniques.
On the one hand, extant leadership theory for groups is extensive and covers a broad range of topics. Group leadership theory examines the strengths and weaknesses of groups as decision-making units in organizations and the contribution of group process to improving or undermining decision-making. It covers particular individual behaviors that contribute to effective groups. In summary, we know a lot about how leaders extend both consideration and initiating of structure (Judge, Piccolo, & Ilies, 2004). On a more practical note, we also know something about the principles of running an effective meeting (Buckholz & Roth, 1987).
On the other hand, in the classroom itself students are unlikely to actually experience and practice principles of group leadership. One reason for this is that pedagogy and research for the management classroom have focused on leaderless groups. In a paper that identified more than 100 articles on groups in the Journal of Management Education, André (2011) found only 15 articles (about 14%) that examined groups with leaders. All the other research focused on leaderless groups, prompting the author to coin the term “leadered” to highlight the importance of leadership in student groups.
This section first examines what researchers have identified as the many problems that occur in leaderless teams. Then, team coaching is offered as one potentially useful theory for anchoring classroom discussion, and future research, about team leadership. Finally, a leadership exercise that develops leadership skills in the basic organizational behavior survey course is presented: Offering classroom leadership opportunities opens the door for research comparing the effectiveness of leadered and leaderless teams.
Concerns about Leaderless Groups
More often than not, instructors teach group process skills in leaderless groups. Yet, many researchers have pointed out the disadvantages of this approach.
To begin with, and fundamentally, leaderless groups are not the norm in the business world, and utilizing them as a training tool gives students a misperception of teams in the real world. A leaderless group is similar to what in business is referred to as a self-managed group, and in classroom practice leaderless groups are often given extensive powers that attempt to mirror such groups. In reality, the normative team in the business world exists in a hierarchy and is accountable to someone. Management influences the group’s decision-making process by setting goals, determining corporate culture, and offering team rewards, among other things. Management models both attitudes and behaviors for the team, as well. As Holmer (2001) argues, using leaderless groups to represent actual business practices may be primarily a convenient fiction.
In class, students report that their leaderless teams are likely to be dominated by driven individuals and sabotaged by freeloaders (Holmer, 2001). A related weakness is that leaderless groups operate within the strong student peer culture, with its norms of conflict minimization, equality, and friendliness. Leadered groups, in contrast, introduce norms that are more common in the business world, norms as simple as making direct requests of team members and as elaborate as working within a hierarchy, directed by the leader, to accomplish tasks together.
Leaderless groups can also negatively impact the accomplishment of important learning objectives, one of which is that students should experience a variety of roles in teams. Unfortunately, in leaderless groups, a student is likely to fall into the same role in group after group: a student may be seen as a leader or as a hard worker who carries the group task and deals with its stressors, or as follower who is a good but perennially uncreative citizen (Guastello, 2007). A student may adopt the ongoing role of social loafer who exploits with either cynicism or guilt (Jassawalla, Sashittal, & Malshe, 2009). In each of these cases, the ongoing role rigidity suggests a failure to learn group process and leadership.
There is some evidence, too, that a leaderless team experience undermines objectives for increasing leadership diversity more generally. In teams without designated leaders (i.e., in which leaders are expected to simply emerge), individuals who do not fit other students’ leadership prototypes are likely to be ignored (Eagly & Karau, 1991). A related problem is that non-prototypical individuals may not believe that the more high-status and culturally dominant team members want to hear what they have to say (Clark, 1998). Tragically, some students may come away from their group experience with the belief that they themselves are not leadership material.
In the end, students exposed to the vagaries of leaderless groups often learn to dread group projects. They develop negative affect when working in groups (Bacon, Stewart, & Silver, 1999). It may well be that students who view groups through a lens comprised of difficult experiences and uncomfortable emotions are at a disadvantage compared with students who plunge happily into teamwork. Research is needed in this important area. Based on these concerns, it seems likely that students who experience leadered teams may have some advantages.
The next section discusses how instructors coach teams and their leaders, and then presents a pedagogical approach that gives each student practice leading a team in the standard organizational behavior survey course. Researchers should examine whether such approaches provide an effective alternative to leaderless groups.
Coaching a Team and Its Leaders
A review of theories of team leadership is beyond the scope of this article. However, the theory of team coaching as described by Hackman and Wageman (2005) is analogous to how instructors teach with teams in the classroom, and is therefore worth discussing in some detail here.
Team leaders vary in the amount of attention they give to (1) structuring a team and its work, including establishing its goals; (2) running external interference in the organization and arranging for resources there; (3) coaching individuals to improve their personal contributions; and (4) coaching the team as a whole to help members use their collective resources most effectively. In a study of 268 teams in 88 organizations, the first two functions were used the most by team leaders, and the last two functions (i.e., the coaching functions) were used the least (Wageman, Hackman, & Lehman, 2004). The reader will recognize that the first two functions are similar to initiating structure, while the second two are similar to providing consideration (Judge, Piccolo, & Ilies, 2004; Schriesheim & Bird, 1979), a pattern that, as we have seen here, reveals itself repeatedly in the process literature. Bolton (1999) offers an alternative model that suggests coaches should start teams off well, help them manage diversity and conflict, and help them learn from their teamwork experience.
Depending on their particular learning objectives for leaders, classroom instructors teach some or all four of these functions. Certainly, this four-factor approach to team leadership provides a useful context for both instructors and students to delineate key interventions team leaders should consider. Thus, for example, lecturing on the four factors before giving students experiential work in class helps clarify the focus of an intervention: “As your instructor, I am now coaching the team”; “As a group member, you are now advocating for your team within the organization.” The four factors act as a checklist of possibilities that team leaders can embrace. The list can also be used to clearly inform which responsibilities in the classroom are the instructor’s and which are the students’.
Such theoretical frameworks are the underpinning of classroom experiential learning. Yet, how can theories for leading teams be taught experientially in the classroom? The next section will examine some possibilities.
Using Leadered Teams
What are the primary learning goals for student leaders in leadered teams? For one thing, they include those skills related to initiating structure, such as (1) setting goals for the team, (2) planning how the team will accomplish its mission, (3) stating the goals and processes to the group, and (4) running meetings. Secondly, they include skills more related to interpersonal behaviors (e.g., coaching). In the typical classroom, coaching individual group members is left to the instructor, although some personal developmental work occurs as the students evaluate each other. (For an appraisal of the student evaluation process, see Willcoxson, 2006.) Coaching the entire group (e.g., evaluating and improving the group’s decision-making process) is often an explicit goal of the class and is performed by each student.
In addition, leader goals may include individual development. In terms of behaviors, a group leader may gain experience speaking before a group, learning to adapt speaking and behaving to particular individuals and groups. The leader also experiences psychological realities, such as what it is like to have more authority than others in the group. One of the fascinating things about teaching group process is that the possibilities for individual development can be complex, and possibly life-changing, and may blossom long after a course is finished.
Studying leadered teams is a field of inquiry that is wide open. The following are some hypotheses to consider. In leadered teams the impact of the dominant individuals and freeloaders may be reduced; meanwhile, individual learning, including learning by those very dominant and freeloading individuals, may be enhanced:
Requiring freeloaders to sometimes lead and dominant leaders to sometimes follow mitigates these problems. Indeed, the psychology of the leadered group is likely to be somewhat different from that of the leaderless group. For instance, the freeloader who in the leaderless group can remain detached and selfish, in the leadered group is required to prove himself or herself on at least one occasion. Influencing the freeloader to thus become a more productive group member may change group dynamics significantly and possibly enhances that person’s group engagement throughout the group’s development.
(André, 2011, p. 600)
Thus, the psychological experience of the leadered team may both come closer to that of workplace teams and be more personally developmental. It may change people’s minds about their own possibilities for leading teams in business.
All of these experiences suggest research opportunities.
Of course, leadered groups also have their weaknesses. A comparison of the hypothesized strengths and weaknesses of leaderless versus leadered groups include the following:
1) Leaderless groups have the advantages that students practice group process skills, peer culture encourages fun and high energy, and informal leaders may emerge.
2) Leadered groups have the advantages that students practice both formal leadership and group process skills; aspects of managerial culture, such as hierarchy, are introduced; each student leads and gets structured feedback; students observe a variety of leadership styles among their peers; dominant individuals learn followership.
3) Leaderless groups are disadvantaged because the skills of formal leadership are not taught or practiced; peer culture dominates, fostering conformity; emergent leaders may not be good role models; and the nondominant students participate very little.
4) Leadered groups are disadvantaged because leaders lead infrequently and do not practice their skills over time in most courses; students may be uncomfortable leading, in part because their peer culture emphasizes equality; and when leadership is emphasized, group member process skills may receive less attention (André, 2011).
More research is needed in this area as well.
In the end, leading a team in class will always be different than leading a team in a business setting (Humphreys, Greenan, & McIlveen, 1997; Thomas & Busby, 2003). A student cannot use money to reward and punish, and does not have to manage the issues of power in a hierarchy. Also, a student doesn’t stay in the leader position for very long, and so may not experience the same stressors as leaders in business.
But what research can help instructors to do is to make that classroom experience as authentic as possible. The next section presents a project that brings leadership back into the classroom group experience, with the hope that a research agenda along these lines could be advanced.
The Leadered Group Project
The leadered group project (LGP) is an integrated, semester-long experience that enhances learning of team leadership skills in the organizational behavior survey course (André, 2011). A “leadered student team” is nothing more complicated than a group of students in which one person is designated the leader. In the LGP, students apply experientially a variety of professional skills and theories: they assume the role of leader, articulate and assert ideas in that role, design their team’s process, plan and organize, intervene interpersonally, run meetings, manage a diverse team, and are evaluated by their peers.
Although for professional audiences it is referred to as the LGP, in class the project is called “The Connections Project.” The project requires students to make connections between the textbook theory and the reality they experience in their classroom leadership opportunities, and between their own and their classmates’ behaviors.
In the LGP students experience an opportunity to lead and the responsibility to lead well. They are accountable for leadership effectiveness, and they receive feedback on leadership technique. The instructor is responsible for creating these experiences. Providing an opportunity for each student to lead within an organizational behavior survey course is challenging but not impossible (see Hess, 2007). In the LGP, permanent, term-long groups are created; short-term, in-class group projects are assigned; and project leadership is rotated among the group members.
The LGP has several strengths. First, it offers every student these opportunities for leadership practice with feedback. By doing so, it suggests to everyone in the class that every student, no matter their personality, can learn and master leadership skills. Because they observe firsthand a variety of individuals in leadership roles, the leadership rotation also helps students challenge their own prototypes.
In terms of logistics, the LGP requires an introductory class that introduces team process and leadership, and, optimally, includes a leaderless group project that serves as an icebreaker and process dry run. This session is followed by five or six 45- to 60-minute LGPs (one for each of five group members and one for make-ups or to accommodate groups of six) that run anytime during the term. One project can be virtual and done outside of class. To save precious class time, each of these projects can be crafted to reinforce other course material that is not group related.
The instructor as manager. During the LGP, the instructor is both project manager and coach. The complications inherent in their role are discussed at length elsewhere (André, 2011) and include making clear decisions as to how much power will be delegated to students and determining whether student leaders will have the power to tell their group members what to do. A key issue is how much power the instructor is willing to let go. Will the instructor let the group fail at some things, as a learning experience? For example, if a project will be run in the next class, should the instructor remind student leaders of that in advance, or not?
The instructor as coach. The role of coach is extremely important to the success of the LDP. At the individual level, the instructor has psychological expertise that students may lack, and the responsibility to use it. It has been increasingly recognized, for example, that introverts can lead just as well as, if not better than, extroverts (Brown & Reilly, 2009; Mann, 1959). Yet if our introverted students fail to grasp this, if they fail to learn that being a leader is creative and fun and possible for them, they lose out on an important personal opportunity. Likewise, classroom extroverts must learn how to follow as well as lead. Thus, an important role of the coach is to recognize personality differences and advise individuals accordingly.
When it comes to coaching the group as a whole, instructors must decide such issues as how much direction is useful. They must themselves develop the fine art of feedback—giving neither too much nor too little feedback to the groups. Giving too much precludes the initiative of the student leaders, while giving too little obviates the goals of the course. For example, consider this dilemma:
You notice that Julie has been the scribe for every session. A directive comment to the group would be, “You should rotate writers from project to project.” A comment that invites participation would be, “Is it a good idea for Julie to write every session?” And a laissez-faire approach would be to simply let the issue of writers not participating emerge from the group’s self-observation. To some extent your choice depends on the sophistication of your groups. For example, in some settings, a laissez-faire approach would probably leave Julie writing every session for the entire term, an undesirable outcome for both Julie and the group. In other settings, groups might readily realize that this will curtail her participation and will themselves figure out to rotate the writing.
(André, 2011, p. 611)
Another question is whether instructors should intervene when they see interesting behaviors during the group projects. Should they praise a leader who has just done something really good by passing them a congratulatory note? Should they alert them to group problems, such as a quiet member? Such interventions can be very powerful, pulling students into the present moment and encouraging them to take action. A related research question considers what types of coaching work best in leadered groups.
Learning outcomes. The learning outcomes of the LGP are necessarily modest relative to more process-intensive courses, as leaders may lead for as little as 45 minutes in the classroom (along with some preparation outside of the classroom). At the same time, research suggests that leaders who reflect on their group process probably learn more than those who do not (see Willcoxson, 2006). Since the LGP student leaders are also group members across half a dozen different projects, they have quite a lot of material to analyze.
Therefore, a paper analyzing the process of each session is a valuable learning tool for this project. Writing up the project helps students develop a personal narrative of themselves as leaders. Among novice leaders, comments like “No one ever asked me to lead anything before,” followed by “I enjoyed leading. It was new to me and tells me I might some day want to be a manager” are fairly common (André, 2011, p. 613). Indeed, one can hardly imagine a successful business curriculum in which a student is not asked to lead a group.
Experienced student leaders learn new process approaches, and they, too, may further develop their notion of leadership. For instance, an instructor challenged one such extroverted student leader by assigning him to be a process consultant to a team. He observed that being a process consultant was more fun than being a leader, and started thinking about possible future consulting opportunities (André, 2011).
A paper on their own leadership and group process is also helpful to students in job interviews. Employers quite often ask questions about students’ experience in teams, and students can draw on their team training in class to answer these questions concretely.
In sum, teams in the classroom offer many opportunities for consequential research on how group and team leadership skills are developed. The distinction between leadered and leaderless teams is an important one that should inspire more examination.
The next and last section moves to a different aspect of teams in the classroom, namely, the use of teams to teach course content.
Using Teams to Learn Content
In management studies, classroom teams are often studied for their own sake, but at times they are used as instruments to learn other types of content. When teams are used not primarily to develop teamwork and leadership skills but rather to enhance the learning of course content, there are, nevertheless, major interactions between these two goals. The distinction between content and process becomes blurred, and both team skills and content learning are enhanced. How does this synergy occur?
Team-based learning (TBL) ensures that students both learn course content and practice it in problem-solving situations (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008). In a TBL course students join permanent teams for the term. Before a given class, students must study the assigned materials for the unit and prepare to take a short test on the main ideas. This process is called the readiness assurance process, and is analogous to the more recently introduced notion of flipping a classroom. After the test is taken by individuals, it is then taken by their team. Students then receive the instructor’s feedback on the team test and they discuss answers upon which they disagree. Finally, the instructor offers a short lecture that corrects misperceptions that have become apparent during the testing. Once the testing period is completed, the remainder, and majority, of the class is spent on group activities that apply the course content.
Utilizing TBL requires rethinking the traditional course (see Michaelson, Knight, & Fink, 2004). Professors must design the course by identifying and clustering instructional objectives and then creating a related grading system. Grades are dependent on individual performance, team performance, and each individual’s contribution to the success of the team.
Instructors address student concerns about the grading system—for example, the common worry about freeloaders—using several strategies. First, a high level of accountability for individual pre-class preparation, class attendance, and devoting time to group assignments matters. Part of the student’s grade is based on the individual scores on the readiness assurance tests and on peer evaluation. A related design element is that team assignments are done in class based on thinking and deciding that goes on only there; thus it is believed that less motivated teammates are unlikely to put the group at risk.
Research and wide usage suggest that being involved in this learning experience teaches students a great deal about teams. For one thing, it proves to them that effective teams readily outscore the best team member. Data collected over 20 years in nearly 1,600 teams show that the groups outperform their own best member by an average of nearly 11%. In the majority of classes, the lowest team score in the class is higher than the single best individual score in the entire class (Michaelson, Watson, & Black, 1989). In addition, student appreciation for group process is enhanced, although this outcome depends on the instructor pointing out group process and effectiveness to the teams. This knowledge can be developed by having students keep an ongoing log about team process, or write an end of the term reflection on how team members and team interaction have changed as their team became more cohesive.
One of the advantages of the team-based approach is that it can be applied in many areas in higher education. (See the 2008 special issue in New Directions for Teaching and Learning for numerous examples.) The team-based approach can also be adapted for use in business (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2012).
Researchers continue to critique and refine the team-based approach to content learning. For instance, a study of 233 business undergraduates found that learning content can be inhibited by the use of a group approach: individuals actually learned more when working alone (Bacon, 2005). Further, the author concluded that the design of the study probably minimized the negative impact of groups on the outcome.
Thus, it is crucial that business instructors examine their assumptions about how students learn best. If their goal is to enhance content learning, Bacon suggests they should use peer learning models, such as that developed by Michaelsen and Sweet (2008), that include the establishment of group goals but also require individual accountability. It remains to be seen whether projects designed to mimic business methods are fully adaptable to the classroom. For example, the testing that is essential to peer learning models in business schools is not likely to be practical in most business cultures.
One promising development for teaching teams in the classroom is to combine teamwork theory with problem-solving theory. Learning team skills at the same time as creative problem-solving skills may take students a long way toward solving everyday organizational problems (Goltz, Hietapelto, Reinsch, & Tyrell, 2007). This area, too, warrants further research and pedagogical development.
Teams are as popular in the classroom as they are in the business world, which is to say that they are ubiquitous. If not universally loved, they are certainly widely valued. Yet, challenges remain.
Both more research and more pedagogical innovation are needed. The nearly universal use of leaderless teams has been made problematic by the research on their weaknesses, and it may be made obsolete by the successful introduction of leadered groups. Future research should compare these two classroom methodologies using such factors as current student learning and impacts on students’ early career team experiences.
Teams in the classroom are fascinating, convenient, inconvenient, annoying, entertaining, boring, and wonderful. They are just like—or rather, almost like—real life.
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