” In addition, we plan to have fewer layers of management, both top down and sideways, to accelerate the flow of information and decision making. This includes flattening organizations and increasing the span of control of people managers”, states CEO Satya Nadella of Microsoft in a mail to all employees.

Evidence indeed shows that shared instead of vertical leadership is needed when tasks are complex, creative and/or interdependent (Pearce, 2004). Shared means that team members lead one another instead of depending on top-down leadership.

This doesn’t mean that vertical leaders or “people managers” are no longer needed. On the contrary. Without empowering vertical leaders, shared leadership is impossible. But the nature of their leadership changes. Their role is restricted to team design, boundary management & ongoing coaching (Pearce, 2004). Their mindset has to change from control to trust and they can no longer rely on status-based power as sources of self-esteem.

This evolution doesn’t happen overnight. As Pearce points out in his review (2004), training & development, reward & cultural systems need to support this transition. Changing the structure is not enough.

Douglas and Gardner (2004) show how managers reduced their hard influencing tactics when their organisation implemented self-directed work teams. They used less legitimating, pressure or coaclition tactics. But only few managers, those with high self-monitoring skills, developed the needed soft influencing behavior (consultation, inspirational appeals, rational persuasion). Douglas and Gardner refer to threat-rigidity effects: when faced with a threatening situation, people behave rigidly and fail to change.

Moral of the story: reducing management layers can reduce overall leadership in an organisation. Managers abandon their teams, while these teams need them to develop the desired self- & shared leadership. Especially if the organisational change is perceived as a threat, leadership is in danger. A clear and positive new deal between teams and leaders is needed.

Any comments?

- Pearce, C. (2004). The future of leadership: combining vertical and shared leadership to transform knowledge work. Academy of management executive, 18 (1), 47-57
- Douglas, C. & Gardner, W. (2004). Transition to self-directed work teams: implications of transition time and self-monitoring for managers’ use of influence tactics. Journal of organizational behavior, 25 (1), 47-65.

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