Team Leadership Trends 2018

The reshaping of organizations that began at the turn of the century continued this year at an accelerated pace. Digital technologies, the emergence of new global competition, and the expectations of the next generation of workers are but a few of the driving forces. How organizations respond and reshape themselves will determine whether they are on a trajectory to achieve greatness, or are relegated to mediocrity. For many companies, it is their teams and team leaders that sit at the epicenter of this dynamic landscape. They will, to a large extent, determine where their organizations land in the distribution from mediocre to great. The key challenge leaders face is understanding where to focus their change efforts.

My experience is that the observations and recommendations of researchers and industry consultants are rarely – if ever – part of the daily conversations or actions of working team leaders and their teams. This is not surprising given the “changing tires on a moving car” nature of most team leaders’ days. It is, however, a missed opportunity.

In this article, I discuss some of the most significant trends in team leadership research, highlight a few of the most compelling ideas from industry experts, and recommend three key actions on which to focus in 2018.

Trends in Team Research

In my reading of recent peer-reviewed research studies and meta-analyses (a study of multiple studies), I identified three themes that will continue to impact team leaders and their teams in 2018:

The continued decline of the hierarchical leader-follower model, and the rise of networked, collaborative team leadership. Many recent studies which were focused on team leadership describe the emergence of a new generation of team leaders. This new generation of highly-effective leaders demonstrate the cognitive and emotional competencies to navigate complex team environments – rather than needing top-down, command-and-control of employees to accomplish the team’s goals. Those complex environments include local, virtual, and hybrid teams that cross both time zones and cultural boundaries. These team leaders motivate, communicate, and collaborate through a combination of shared leadership practices and digital technologies.

The recognition of the highly-dynamic and uncertain nature of teamwork, and its impact on traditional models of team leadership. Most team leadership models that emerged in the mid-to late-twentieth-century reflect a static view of the nature of teams. Emphasis is placed on team leader traits and team processes in input-output systems. A better understanding of the fluid and complex nature of teamwork in today’s flatter, networked organizations is leading to a greater emphasis on team leaders understanding the importance of interpersonal team member relationships. To be effective in a highly dynamic environment, team leaders must ensure that team member relationships are built upon a foundation that includes a clear, compelling team purpose, individual role clarity, and healthy team norms.

The changing composition of team member expectations. A new generation of team members who were “raised” in team environments with an emphasis on collaboration throughout their school years – and the rise of networked, collaborative team leadership – has increased the expectation that employees will have a voice in work processes and decision making. Feedback is shifting from something occasionally requested by HR to something team members expect to provide on a regular basis, along with acknowledgment and response by management.

Trends in Practice

The catalyst for change in team-work practices often originates with the industry experts, consultants, and leadership training organizations that bridge the gap between leadership research and the day-to-day work within organizations. As we enter 2018, three recurring recommendations emerge from consultants and industry experts on team performance:

Reshape your organizations around networks of teams. This theme echoes the observation of team researchers that there is a decline of the hierarchical leader-follower model, and a rise of networked, collaborative team leadership. A Deloitte study of 7,000 plus companies in 130 countries identified the need for new organizational design to meet today’s workforce and business climate as a top priority for most of those companies. Much of that design thinking is around how to build highly-effective teams that deliver better performance and elevate the employee experience.

Develop a new generation of team leaders. There is a strong need for people who can effectively lead complex, multi-team environments made up of hybrid/virtual teams. These roles will likely offer the additional challenge of being global and multi-cultural. This generation of team leaders will need to be comfortable playing the role of a team leader and a team member across different teams, and frequently at the same time. Most significantly, this new generation of leaders must see shared team leadership and collaboration as table stakes, and put their energies into building highly-effective teams that balance performance with employee well-being.

Increase your focus on more sophisticated and reliable measures of team effectiveness and employee well-being. Teams are the work unit of choice as many organizations flatten their organizational structures – or in the case of start-ups are ‘born flat’. Yet, many of these same organizations continue to use feedback and development processes that are geared toward individual contributors outside of the team context. In a recent article on team leadership for Forbes, ex-Navy SEAL Brent Gleeson describes the “top 5 – bottom 5” peer feedback process used during SEAL training. The weekly anonymous peer feedback system is a fast and powerful approach to forging strong, trusting team relationships. It emphasizes building shared norms and alignment of purpose. Yet, despite the proven effectiveness, and availability of a new generation of feedback and measurement tools, few organizations strive for the same level of team excellence as the SEALs.

Looking Forward: Recommendations

A turn of the calendar year brings renewed energy to fostering change, growth, and success – both personal and organizational. The challenge for most people is not falling into the Einstein attributed dilemma of doing the same thing and expecting a different result. For organizations that are betting their future on the effectiveness of their teams, doing the same thing is not an option. Synthesizing the observations and recommendations of researchers and practitioners, there are a few key actions that you should focus on in the coming year if you want to drive meaningful change in team performance:

Design for teams. This includes strategy, structure, and processes. Focus on the team first and the individual second. Don’t underestimate the challenge that you will face when shifting traditional team leader mindsets from hierarchical structures to shared leadership.

Hire for teams. Talent acquisition and development in complex, dynamic team environments are very different from the individual contributor roles in a traditional hierarchy. Focus on hiring people that will fit with, and complement, team norms, and will thrive in a shared leadership environment.

Build for the future. The last generation’s static team development models are not enough. The traditional solid fundamentals of clear purpose, the right people – especially healthy team norms – and providing proper support are the starting points. Building highly-effective teams in complex, dynamic team environments require team leaders to understand work motivation and have the emotional intelligence to develop strong, trusting team member relationships.

As you reflect upon the past year and make your leadership resolutions for the new year ahead, pay attention to the trends that are shaping organizations and teams around the globe. And, recall Aristotle’s observation that we are what we repeatedly do, along with Einstein’s advice that if you want a different result, then repeatedly do something different. After all, excellence is not an act, but a habit.

Happy New Year!


Selected Sources and References

Costa, P. L., Passos, A. M., & Bakker, A. B. (2016). The work engagement grid: Predicting engagement from two core dimensions. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 31, 774-789. doi:10.1108/JMP-11-2014-0336

Guchait, P. (2016). The mediating effect of team engagement between team cognitions and team outcomes in service-management teams. Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, 40, 139-161. doi:10.1177/1096348013495698

Li, N., Zheng, X., Harris, T. B., Liu, X., & Kirkman, B. L. (2016). Recognizing ‘me’ benefits ‘we’: Investigating the positive spillover effects of formal individual recognition in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, 925-939. doi:10.1037/apl0000101

Hurley, J. S. (2017). The One Habit: The Ultimate Guide to Building Engaged, Highly-Effective Teams. Scottsdale, AZ: Xmetryx Press.

Deloitte Human Capital Trends

Center for Creative Leadership: Future Trends in Leadership Development

The “Active Job Seeker Dilemma” a survey of 4,347 job seekers and 129 human resource (HR) professionals sponsored by Future Workplace, and Beyond – The Career Network

Forbes Community Voice: What Top Leaders And Academics Are Thinking About Leadership In 2017

Forbes Leadership: Be Better Prepared For 2017 With These 8 Leadership Trend Projections

Kristin L. Cullen-Lester, Cynthia K. Maupin, Dorothy R. Carter, Incorporating social networks into leadership development: A conceptual model and evaluation of research and practice, The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 28, Issue 1, 2017, Pages 130-152. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.10.005.

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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.