Researchers: “Leadership is overestimated; rely more on employees”

Published: 2019-06-11

Leadership is merely one among an arsenal of tools at the disposal of managers and employees to create a well-functioning group or organisation, according to organisational researchers Mats Alvesson, Stefan Sveningsson and Martin Blom at the School of Economics and Management.

Stefan Sveningsson and Mats Alvesson are part of the research group LUMOS – Lund University Management and Organization Studies. Photo: Louise Larsson

Are you someone who prefers to work in their own corner, rather than having a manager looking over their shoulder? Do you set targets together with your colleagues, and perhaps turn to your manager for guidance on more administrative matters? In that case, you are practising alternatives to leadership – something that should be encouraged and developed in a workplace, according to the researchers.

“Leadership has taken over the discussion about how organisations should be governed and coordinated. It becomes a panacea which is thought to cure many different problems and is often endorsed by both practitioners and consultants, as well as academics. But there are alternatives and we often don't even think about the fact that we use them,” says Stefan Sveningsson, professor of business administration.

In their book Reflexivt ledarskap ("Reflective Leadership") (HR Book of the Year 2017), Alvesson, Sveningsson and Blom highlight five alternatives – or complements – to encouraging and inspiring leadership. They are management, the exercise of (coercive) power, group work, network influence and autonomy (self-governance).

“Our activities at Lund University are more dominated by the horizontal forms of organisation, such as group work, networks and independent work,” says Stefan Sveningsson.

He thinks that unless more or better leadership are demanded in the workplace, it can be beneficial to focus on something else that fosters employee development.

“It is better to problematise and ask ourselves what we need, but perhaps people do not always recognise the alternatives. This is where we offer a vocabulary that can be used to reflect on how coordination functions,” says Stefan Sveningsson.

In other words, the manager's task can be to encourage discussion, reflection and ways for employees to collaborate or work independently.

“It is rare for someone to organise a workshop on how to become better employees. The idea behind the six forms of organisation is that we should ask ourselves: what is the problem? What is the solution? Perhaps we should focus less on the manager and more on collaboration between qualified colleagues,” says Mats Alvesson, professor of organisation and leadership.

What can I, as an individual employee at Lund University, do in my everyday work? What can my manager do?
“There should always be an interaction. It is equally important that the employees lead the manager as the reverse. Can you give the manager feedback on what you expect of them? What demands and wishes do you have of one another? It is possible to give feedback and lead upwards. The qualified, horizontal governance should be the core of academia,” says Mats Alvesson.

“Think through the local context in which you find yourself and the concrete situation. It is absolutely crucial to how you should work,” says Stefan Sveningsson.

At the same time, it is important not to get rid of leadership completely.

“Of course there are situations in which it is appropriate to lead to create a context and purpose within the organisation", says Stefan Sveningsson. "What we want is for people to think through how and when leadership is to be used. Reflectiveness is the whole point.”

Leadership – one of six different modes of organising

Leadership: Interpersonal influencing process in an asymmetrical relationship, targeting meaning, feelings and values. The leader uses inspirational talk in order to provide direction, meaning and emotional or moral support. Can act as a role model.

Management: Authority based on formal rights and hierarchy. The manager plans, budgets, supervises, sets up rules or guidelines, and evaluates the results.

Power: Authority based on force and/or political skills. The person in power uses threats and sanctions, promises of rewards and mobilizes group pressure.

Peer influencing: Guidance and support from peers within the same occupational specialty or community of practice (outside one’s own immediate organizational unit). The employee works in expert networks and has informal meetings outside work meetings, lunches, etc.

Group work: Guidance and support from members of the work group. Co-decision making, team meetings and mutual adjustments on a daily basis.

Autonomy: Self-orchestrated work processes. The employee thinks for himself or herself, sets to a significant degree own standards, plans and evaluates own work and performance.

Source: Beyond leadership and followership. Working with a variety of modes of organizing

(Table 1. Modes of Organizing — Summary and overview)