It Takes a Team

Bauer Researchers Look at Influences when Teams Interact

Published on April 20, 2020

Assistant Professor Kristin Cullen-Lester

People in health care, business, and local, state and federal agencies are stretching skillsets to coalesce around the shared goals of advancing scientific discoveries and managing supply chains more efficiently to defeat the Coronavirus. What influences are at play when multiple teams of people, often from different organizations, interact and work together? Regardless of job titles, who are the leaders that ensure effective intergroup collaboration, and what factors influence how successful they are at achieving their goals?

A recent research paper by C. T. Bauer College of Business Management Assistant Professor Kristin Cullen-Lester examines those questions, which couldn’t be more relevant to a world battling an unprecedented pandemic. However, the research applies to more ordinary business circumstances, as well.

While there is no shortage of leadership research concerning CEOs, other high-ranking executives, and leadership of independent teams, the study of leadership when two or more groups are working together has lagged behind, Cullen-Lester says.

“Functional Leadership in Inter-team Contexts: Understanding ‘What’ in the Context of Why? Where? When? and Who?” published in Leadership Quarterly, reviews the existing literature on the topic and makes recommendations to direct future research.

“Ensuring that we have leadership that is promoting effective intergroup interactions is really critical for organizations and society as a whole,” she says. “Obviously, we’re in the midst of the current pandemic and there are examples all around us of different groups that need to work together effectively to address this pressing challenge. But the dynamics are the same, even in more mundane circumstances, such as developing a new product or implementing an organization’s strategy.”

In the paper, the six co-authors (including Bauer doctoral student Eun Young Nae), advocate for a more nuanced approach when it comes to research that will be instrumental in helping multiple teams achieve shared goals.

Among their recommendations:

  1. Recognize that one team’s success doesn’t guarantee its success in working with other groups toward a superordinate goal. For example, a very strong team identity may inhibit the ability of the team to collaborate with other teams, Cullen-Lester said.

“The more critical the inter-collaboration between teams is, the more important it is that members of different teams have a positive perception of each other, and often a shared identity,” she said.

  • Put more emphasis on how leadership unfolds at different stages and over time.  Leadership needs in the planning or resource gathering phase are much different than those called for in the face of unanticipated complications, for example. Researchers need to study teams over time, and capture more phases of inter-team collaboration.
  • Consider and study the impact of informal leadership in addition to formal leadership to understand the effectiveness of inter-team interaction.

“As organizations face environments with scarce resources and high stakes challenges to solve, such as the current crisis situation, organizational researchers need to redouble our efforts to answer questions regarding how can groups best work together and what must leaders do to ensure this happens?” Cullen-Lester said.

For more information about participating in an ongoing study that focuses on inter-team leadership at the top levels of organizations, click here.