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What we expect from our leaders

We all have expectations about how we are treated, or how we are expected to act in the workplace. A Lot of these expectations are in fact unwritten, outside the typical scope of salary or benefits.

One such expectation is leadership style, and how individuals expect to be involved in the decision-making process of a team. How these expectations affect leadership in project-based organisations (PBOs) was recently explored by Agarwal and colleagues (Agarwal et al., 2021). They found that across seven separate PBOs they surveyed, all in a diverse range of industries, everyone had expectations of distributed leadership (both project managers and team members alike). Distributed leadership involves a more collaborative style, where decision-making is diffused across the team, compared to the more traditional vertical leadership style, where decisions are made from the top.

In reality only four organisations actually practised distributed leadership styles. For the other three organisations this creates a clear breach of their project members’ expectations, and consequently led to poorer performance, and lower ratings of satisfaction among team members.

So why weren't all of the organisations being led as they expected? The researchers found three key factors responsible for leadership style:

  1. Organisational culture – the PBOs that exhibited distributed styles of leadership had a culture built on trust and delegation, supported by cross-functional teams where project members had an opportunity to share their view and take initiative. This culture encouraged participation in the decision-making process that aligned with their members’ expectations.

  2. Knowledge sharing – organisations focused on stability and control resulted in project members withholding knowledge as a way to safe-guard their careers. Alternatively those organisations that supported knowledge sharing did so with communities of practice and mentoring. These allowed individuals to find opportunities for growth, dive deep into them, and share with the rest of the team what they were invested in.

  3. PM Methodology – This appeared as a predominantly cultural choice, with PBOs in Australia demonstrating Waterfall/Agile hybrid methodologies, while Indian PBOs used a more traditional PM methodology (which relies on a more prescriptive VL style).

What can we learn from this example?

Within the scope of project management we, as consultants, are tasked with embedding ourselves within an organisation’s existing culture, knowledge sharing practices, and preferred methodologies. This gives us a limited scope to influence the three key factors outlined above. Ideally there is still a collaborative process that allows us to bring best practice methodologies into an organisation, improve their knowledge sharing practices, or even create a meaningful impact on their culture. In reality this is often not the case, but what the research shows us we can still do to improve our team’s performance is to set clear expectations and appropriately manage them. It should also give us a clue that across the board people expect to be involved in the decision-making process, and led in a manner that distributes responsibility more evenly, so we should always plan to effectively manage those preferences.


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