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Internal, Informal Peer Leaders Can Make a Positive Impact

“Team leadership powers team learning through person-focused and task-focused behaviors exhibited by a single leader and by team members. This involves leadership behaviors such as building trust and relations, empowering and challenging team members, and structuring teams’ tasks and goals”

(Koeslag-Kreunen et al., 2018, p. 503)

Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School once said something to the effect of: Leader is a role. Leadership is a behavior.

Before getting into 15 top researched leadership behaviors, take a quick listen to Edmondson relating shared leadership to the psychological safety that's created on a team.

While leaders have internal, formal control, there are individuals within and outside the organization that provide support and influence. This is known as shared leadership and it's the focus of this post.

15 Leadership Functions (Morgeson's et al, 2010)

  • Compose the team: Recognize and communicate changes in task environment that may require changes in composition.

  • Define the mission: Maintain a common understanding of purpose. Reinforce importance of the sense of a collective mission.

  • Establish goals and expectations: Communicate what is expected. Help set challenging and realistic goals.

  • Structure and plan: Determine how day-to-day work gets done. Coordinate and standardize processes.

  • Sense making: Interpret what happens inside the team. Make sense of ambiguous situations.

  • Perform team task: Pitch in to help get work done.

  • Monitor the team: Request task-relevant information. Notice and mention flaws in procedures or outputs. Check and communicate progress.

  • Manage team boundaries: Coordinate work with stakeholders across units. Represent the team's interests.

  • Challenge the team: Reconsider key assumptions. Contribute ideas to improve how the team works.

  • Solve problems: Seek different perspectives. Test solutions to address task and relationship problems.

  • Provide resources: Seek and share information to facilitate team's initiatives. Identify gaps and make the case for additional resources.

  • Encourage team self-management: Help the team make process decisions, be responsible, solve its own problems, assess its performance.

  • Train and develop the team: Provide ongoing peer coaching.

  • Provide feedback: Provide results, provide both positive and corrective feedback.

  • Support social climate: Respond promptly to member needs or concerns. Demonstrate respect and concern. Go beyond individual interests for the good of the team. Look out for the personal well-being of team members.

For this conversation, I'd like to focus on the last three for the purposes of building a coaching culture:

  1. train and develop the team

  2. provide feedback

  3. support the social climate

During my time as a registered nurse, I noticed various leadership functions performed ineffectively or missing completely; with many punted to staff. This seemed to have a net positive impact on team building and trust amongst staff peers, but created an opposite and negative effect between staff and their leaders. While trust deepened between nurses, trust eroded between staff and their managers. Which manifested in a cynical, detached view of leadership. Cynicism already ran rampant due to burnout, but I believe this sink-or-swim culture fueled that fire.

With peers assuming leadership behaviors, it's important to consider how they'll be received by others and to address any challenges that may arise from informal leaderships. In my experience, peer leaders historically picked up the slack in these functions, so peer acceptance was usually not hard to come by. However, I did notice that certain staff were regarded higher than others, possibly due to longer experience or personality. I, myself, found training new hires difficult without learning and support on best practices or focus on personal development. I had a quite a chip on my shoulder in my 20s and it certainly affected the impact I desired to make.

Peer leaders who may have good intentions but come across challenging, may benefit from their own coaching and development outside of what leadership formally offers; which is usually very little.

What functions does your team (*not your manager*) do well?

  • Train & develop team members

  • Provide feedback:

  • Support the social climate

  • None

A reflective department may illuminate the need to support the training and development of members through educating peer leaders on providing feedback. I hypothesize this would strengthen the onboarding process and improve new hire work quality. This need is underscored by performative annual reviews that rely heavily on self-evaluation, minimal peer input, and "drive-by" or zero 1:1 debriefing with managers.

Peer leaders can support these leadership functions through informal conversations and trainings that incorporate additional reflection from different perspectives, and create easily accessible, informational artifacts to help themselves and others develop talent. Diverse perspectives within a healthcare setting would be mindful of race, gender, age, nationality, etc. As well as job function: admin, nurses, health unit coordinators, medical technicians, cross-functional staff in other departments, etc. Wouldn't it be helpful to know how you're perceived by the people you work with closely? Feedback delivered in an effective and impactful way sets the stage for improvement and growth.

Helpful artifacts may include an assessment, survey, or checklist to guide onboarding, or a "Top 5 Feedback Practices" badge buddy that references information similar to the below graphic by Jug et al (2019).

Jug, Jiang, X. S., & Bean, S. M. (2019)

This process would in turn fulfill the function of supporting the social climate. These conversations, trainings, and artifacts would attempt to meet member concerns and address their learning and development needs. As well as look out, and demonstrate respect for, the well-being of team members. Running an experiment that focuses on these leadership functions to build a supportive coaching culture may hopefully influence formal leadership to adopt and build strategy around.

To end, I'd like to share a HBR article my instructor shared with me when we reviewed this topic to help us refrain from swooping in and doing, but rather take advantage of opportunities to help others learn and grow.


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