In this research by Wu, Tsui and Kinicki (2010) sought to prove that when leaders display different degrees of attention and support to individuals (within a group), group performance is diminished; whereas similar displays focused on the group as a whole enhances group performance.
Wu et al chose to use “differentiated leadership due to the tendency for leaders to display varying degrees of individual-focused behaviour to group members.” (p.90). This is grounded in Leader Member Exchange Theory (LMX) as acknowledged in the study, which exerts some influence on the study. Previous studies on LMX have largely shown that nearly all leaders differentiate in behaviour towards subordinates (Daniesh & Liden, 1986).
Methodology and Assumptions
The study drew on data collected via web based surveys conducted over two months from a sample of seventy work groups. Seven hypotheses (as shown in Table 1) were drawn up and tested using a group-level model. Wu et al applied the effects of “individual focused leadership” to group level using this model. This was appropriate to use as they sought to study the effects on one variable (groups). In contrast, Wang and Howell (2010) used a ‘dual-level scale’ to test the dual dimensions of their study. They did report though that “important elements of transformational leadership are ignored by using a single “group-level model.”
Wu et al tested their hypotheses for correlation using validity testing and results showed ‘reasonable fit’. The hypotheses were tested using Structural equation modelling (SEM) and other statistical analyses.
Table 1. Wu, Tsui and Kinicki: Tested Hypothesis.
1. When groups are motivated as a group, they have a shared sense of purpose and vision (group identification).Idealised influence, inspirational motivation using MLQ (with revised wording). 2. Collective vision enhances group’s belief in its abilities to performFour indicators (aggregated to group level) 3. Group’s belief in its abilities enhances group effectiveness.Items from two scales used in previous research. 4. Attending to individuals in a group causes individuals to relate to leaders differently.Differentiated individualised consideration and differentiated intellectual stimulation using MLQ5 5. Have different views in leader identification causes individuals to have different levels of self-belief.Six items aggregated to group level. 6. Group members do not believe in the ability to perform because individuals have varying degrees of self-belief.Generalized self-efficacy measure (fit better than task specific measures.) 7. Lack of group’s belief in abilities results in reduced group effectiveness.Group performance and group variability using previous research theories.
Source: Wu, Tsui and Kinicki (2010)
Findings and Analysis
Wu et al found that members identified with the group, and consequently asserted collective abilities which resulted in positive group performance. This was expected. On the other hand, ‘individual-focused leadership’ resulted in varying degrees of leader identification and self-belief. This had an adverse effect on group performance (p.101).
Previous studies on transformational leadership have highlighted its capacity to “raise followers to higher levels of motivation and morality [followers aspire to perform better thereby exhibiting its transforming effects.] (Burns, 978: 20) [cited by] Fairholm (2001). For example in a study in forty six Korean companies, employees displayed increased levels of creativity as a result, in part, of increased motivation due to transformational leadership effects. (Shin & Zhou, 2003).
The findings [of diminished group performance] appear to contradict the validity of LMX theory which, in this study builds on from transformational leadership. The suggestion here is that for optimal group performance, leaders should not use differentiated leadership towards individuals within the group. Rather, leaders should display similar behaviour patterns to all group members.
Individuals are not homogeneous and therefore will naturally perform at different levels be they in a group or not. One would therefore expect that differentiated leadership be an appropriate leadership style. Indeed, situational leadership theory encourages leadership style to be driven by the ‘climate’. (Blanchard, Zigarmi and Zigarmi, 2001)
The authors claim a contribution to research by “modelling both group-focused and individual-focused leadership at the group level”. (p.91) The concept of “individual-focused leadership at the group level” seems to address two separate concepts which the authors attempted to, but failed to integrate. As soon as individuals are singled out and influenced by ‘differentiated’ leadership, individuals cease to fall under the ‘group category’. To ‘elevate’ the resulting effects to group level is at best, misleading. Put simply, the effects of individual-focused leadership should be judged on its ‘target’ audience: the individual. Similarly group-focused leadership should be examined at group level. Wang and Howell, appear to have simplified this current research in their study on the “dual effects of transformational leadership”.
A number of limitations have been identified in the study. Firstly, although web surveys have been shown to reach a wider audience and attract more results, Bryman and Bell (2007: 211) argue that there is a risk of exposure to errors. This is particularly significant in this study where the wording in the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) was revised (p.95). The extent to which questions were misconstrued [thereby invalidating the answers] impacts upon the reliability of the findings. Also, the authors concede that the “values of data aggregation for the group identification and collective efficacy variables were unsatisfactory.” The measures used in the related hypotheses were superficial and therefore renders the findings unreliable.
Bryman and Bell (2003: 203) also encourage the use of larger sample sizes because of the likelihood of variability in a heterogeneous sample. The authors used a sample drawn from eight organizations, and granted that it allowed for ease of information gathering and collating, it can be argued that it was not sizeable enough to warrant a generalization of the research findings. Using a coefficient of variation in a [relatively small] sample, which Wu et al. used, greatly increases the likelihood of the mean values being distorted. Interestingly, the authors did acknowledge that the results of the study “might not generalize to other work groups” (p.102). The sample in the study by Shin & Zhou (2003) for example, was selected from forty six Korean companies, a much bigger sample, which facilitates generalization.
What the study has managed to accomplish as the authors assert, is to provide a platform for studies on the “mechanisms” that lead to diminished group effectiveness as a result of differentiated leadership. This assertion is validated by proving that the “hypotheses paths were statistically significant” (p. 99). Arguably, there already exist numerous theories on leadership with little or no integration. (Derue, Nahrgang, Wellmann and Humphrey, 2011). Wu et al.’s study in its entirety does little to integrate other existing theories but presents yet another ‘theory’.
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