Visionary Leaders can be Categorized as Bad for Teams

Jim Morgan's picture

Given the praise blanketed on “visionary” leaders, you probably assume they are good for teams. “Visionary leader behavior… can include maintaining high performance expectations, promoting followers’ beliefs in their ability to attain the vision, and helping followers to see how their work fits into the big picture,” a group of Dutch researchers say in a study report. They add, “Initial research shows that visionary behaviors are positively linked to team states, processes, and performance.”

However, “leader visions may also be radical, irrational, polarizing, or simply bad ideas,” the researchers go on to say, and “leaders’ visions may be heavily influenced by their own styles and beliefs.” In short, what if the vision is flawed? Logic suggests that if bad ideas are translated into the leader’s “high performance expectations,” that would be a problem for the team. A study by psychologists Lindred Greer, Annebel De Hoogh, and Deanne Den Hartog at the University of Amsterdam, and Astrid Homan at VU University Amsterdam, provides evidence for that logic.

The researchers performed a compelling study in 100 retail stores of a chain in the Netherlands. The team compared store financial performance (measured as sales per customer entering the store) to the manager’s use of visionary behaviors according to worker surveys. They also asked managers to rate themselves on these statements:

  • “I see that there are different categories of people within this team.”
  • “If I had to describe this team, I would do so on the basis of the subgroups I perceive within this team.”
  • “When this team works together, I have the inclination to sort the members in my head into smaller groups.”
  • “If I had to describe the team members, I would do so based on conspicuous categories.”
  • “This team is composed of people who fall into certain subgroups based on noticeable characteristics.”

Notice that nothing in those statements implies the manager prejudged people based on those categories. It merely rates how much the leader notices them. The results produced a dramatic graph:

This shows that a visionary leader who categorized little produced the best sales (see (the dotted line). But the left side of the graph shows a store was far better off with a nonvisionary leader—whether or not they categorized much—than with a visionary leader who categorized a lot.

The psychologists also asked team members about communication in the store, using statements like, “There are enough opportunities for members to inform each other about work-related issues.” The combined effects of leader vision and categorization had similar but smaller impacts on the quality of team communication as on finances. This suggests that one way leader categorization hurt store performance was by reducing communication among team members. When the researchers filtered out the other factors they analyzed, better team communication was correlated to better revenues. So higher categorization may have hurt communication, which is one way it could hurt revenues.

I e-mailed Dr. Greer, and she kindly wrote back, “In the literature on small group interactions, research suggests that leaders that focus on a common group identity help people find common ground to overcome their differences. This suggests that leaders should not categorize or polarize themselves, but should help people from different backgrounds to find common ground to work together on.”

Hence, an unengaged leader who does not impact communication much overall may have a better-performing team than a visionary leader who unintentionally mentions categories like ethnicity, because this tendency could harden natural “us vs. them” differences within the team.

Applying this idea leads into tricky waters. “Indeed, everyone categories,” Dr. Greer wrote me, “but people vary along a continuum in how likely they are to make such categorizations.” Thousands of years ago, if a group of strangers appeared on the horizon that looked different from the clan you lived and worked with, you had to wonder if the others were coming to take your land. So categorization is hard-wired into our brains to help us survive. As I often say, though, it’s not what comes up that matters—it’s what you do with it. Recognizing differences does not mean you have to mention or act on them.

At the other extreme, if you ignore your human tendency to categorize, you cannot know if those categories are impacting your decisions. As a reporter years ago, I found the local school district was spending far more per male athlete than on females (even leaving out costly, male-only American football). From interviews I concluded the district was not purposely discriminating. It happened because no one in the district had thought to check. Many software teams I have worked with categorized developers by skill sets and seemed to forget that skills can be learned. They end up with bottlenecks and single-points-of-failure because only one or two people on the team can do certain tasks. When I recommend cross-training, they admit it is possible and see the benefits, but it had never occurred to them.

Even though this goes against the study data, as an exercise, think about the various ways your team could be categorized, not only gender or race, but job titles, skill sets, education, etc. Then for a week or so, pay attention to things you say and write to see if categorizations are leaking into your decisions and communications. If they aren't, or only for logical reasons—expertise cannot be developed overnight—don't worry about it. But be mindful of how categorization plays out in your words and deeds if you want your visionary leadership to help the team’s performance.

Source: Greer, L., A. De Hoogh, D. Den Hartog, and A. Homan (2012), “Tainted Visions: The Effect of Visionary Leader Behaviors and Leader Categorization Tendencies on the Financial Performance of Ethnically Diverse Teams,” 97(1):203.

Action Item: Take an hour to review decisions you verbally communicated to team members last week and to go through the significant e-mails you sent. Do you find any words that suggest you had categories in mind? Is it possible those categories prevented a better outcome?