College has changed quite a bit since I first started taking college classes 20 years ago. One of the most significant differences is the proliferation of online courses and degree programs. These programs allow students to study and learn on a highly flexible schedule for a variety of different fields of study. This is what influenced me to continue the college experience I started and finish my college degree. Much like standard in-person classes, these online classes have varied in their difficulty and the challenges they present. One of the most challenging aspects of the online environment has been the assignment of group projects.
In these group projects, the course instructor assigns team members either by random or based on a specified criterion. One thing that is not assigned is roles, specifically a leader is not chosen. Therefore, the leadership responsibilities are shared or distributed across team members. “Shared team leadership occurs when member of the team take on leadership behaviors to influence the team and to maximize team effectiveness” (Northouse, 2016, p. 365). For example, many of the teams I’ve worked with had to collaborate and develop consensus before a decision could be made. Shared leadership is beneficial for virtual teams because it increases their effectiveness and aids in completing complex tasks (Northouse, 2016). There are risks involved with shared leadership however, such as the case where none of the team members step forward to assume a leadership role (Northouse, 2016). This is possibly due to the fact that in shared leadership situations members may not have the required leadership skills necessary for the role causing them to lack the confidence needed to step up (Northouse, 2016). This occurred in one of my previous courses where a group assignment was due within 5 hours and no one had even attempted to establish communication with any of the team members. I reluctantly e-mailed the members to ask if they were content with receiving a zero for the assignment. Two of the team members responded and indicated they were interested in completing the assignment and so we managed to quickly complete the assignment with no help from two remaining members who either didn’t respond, or didn’t contribute. Fortunately, this was an isolated occurrence as my other assigned teams have been more successful in working together to complete assignments.
One of the benefits to shared leadership is that all team members can actively monitor the critical leadership functions and determine the appropriate action to take in order to maximize team effectiveness (Northouse, 2016). This is in line with the team leadership model, which focuses on a leader’s ability to appropriately diagnose the situation and take actions to enhance team effectiveness (Northouse, 2016). The success of this in a shared leadership situation is partly dependent on the skills and commitment of the team members. If they do not have the leadership skills necessary to diagnose the situation, they will not be able to take the appropriate action. Additionally if they are not committed to the success of the team or the achievement of goals, they will neglect to take action regardless of the ability to effectively diagnose the situation. This occurred in one of the teams of which I was a part, where we decided to equally distribute each part of the assignment. Unfortunately, each part was dependent on a previous part of the assignment so we were all dependent on one another to complete it. Regrettably the person to complete the first part of the assignment, while committed, did not have the skills to properly complete their part of the assignment. This negatively affected the next person who did not have the commitment to recognize and adjust the initial part of the assignment and instead completed their portion without regards to the first, leaving a disjointed starting point for the third individual. Once it got to the third individual, it was clear there was going to be a significant issue that needed to be addressed with the team and required committed and skillful leadership. However, this was something our team lacked, and without it these virtual teams will not be able to fully maximize the effectiveness of shared leadership.
It could be argued that the reason our team struggled in these situations was because we were attempting to behave more like a group than as a team. While group members may share a common goal and influence or interact with one another, they are not necessarily dependent on each other to accomplish their goal (PSU WC, 2019). A team on the other hand, must work together and are dependent on one another to achieve their mutual goal (PSU WC, 2019). Therefore, when my other team decided to work on separate parts of the assignment when it was clear that a collaborative effort was needed, our team was attempting to avoid the obvious truth that we were dependent on one another to complete the assignment. Had we worked as a team, we would have all helped the first individual complete their portion of the assignment correctly and allowed the second person an easier time to complete their portion. As another example, when my other team was not communicating with each other, we were individually avoiding the fact we dependent on one another to achieve our mutual goal, behaving more as a group than as a team. In this particular case, the team may have also been affected by form of social loafing, which occurs when individuals decrease their efforts based on the level of perceived distributed responsibility for the outcome (PSU WC, 2019). This was probably because there were no peer reviews for that particular group assignment. It is clear that both of these teams were not effective in spite of eventually accomplishing the goal of completing the assignment, because they lacked certain characteristics that would have promoted them to behave more like a team, and less like a group.
Larson and LaFasto (1989) identified eight characteristics that were indicative of effective teams (Northouse, 2016). The eight characteristics effective teams possess are: (1) a clear, elevating goal; (2) a results-driven structure; (3) competent team members; (4) a unified commitment; (5) a collaborative climate; (6) standards of excellence; (7) external support and recognition; and (8) principled leadership (Northouse, 2016; PSC WC, 2019). When it comes to working in these assigned teams for online group assignments, there are a number of inherent challenges that inhibit or mitigate these characteristics from developing. For example, the first characteristic is that effective teams have a clear and elevating goal (Northouse, 2016). In the case of these assigned teams, the goals are presented clearly by the instructor, usually in the assignment instructions and syllabus. It could be argued however, that the goal in and of itself is not necessarily elevating or motivating to the team members since the assignment requires the coordination that is not necessary when students work independently. Another example of an inherently challenging factor is that team members are either assigned randomly, or based factors that do not consider competence or commitment. Therefore, there is no way to secure the team will possess competent members, have a unified commitment, or have a collaborative climate. This can cause a lot of internal strife when those whose goal is simply to pass are teamed with those whose goal is to get a perfect score. While peer reviews help to mitigate this probability, the situation still allows for some students to exploit the efforts of others, promoting social loafing to some degree. A final example is the possibility the team will lack the principle leadership needed to be effective because none of the team members posses the skills or desire to lead. As these examples show, it is rather difficult for online student teams to possess a number of the characteristics that are indicative of effective teams, making their goals more difficult to achieve for reasons beyond the assignment itself.
In spite of these challenges many online course continue to promote group assignments as part of the curriculum. This is because the proliferation of technology in the workforce has demanded that individuals have experience in working in virtual groups and teams. An increased reliance on work teams has been due in part to the ever-growing complexity of required tasks as globalization and technology have driven a greater need to maintain a competitive advantage in the marketplace (Northouse, 2016). Organizational teams provide a number of benefits such as “greater productivity, more effective use of resources, better decisions and problem solving, better-quality products and services, and greater innovation and creativity” (Northouse, 2016, p. 364). With this in mind, it is evident the need for organizations to utilize and leverage teams will continue to grow. However, having organizational teams does not guarantee organizational success. This is why leadership is an important concept to consider regarding the increasing utilization of teams, in order to fully maximize the benefits they present.
I believe a number of my online group assignments could have benefited by having principled leadership. “Leadership has been described as the central driver of team effectiveness” (Northouse, 2016, p. 371). Because there is no guarantee that teams will possess members that have the skills or desire necessary to lead, I would suggest course instructors fill this role by actively monitoring groups. For example, an instructor that assumes a leadership role of a group could utilize some of the tools presented in the Hill Model for Team Leadership (Northouse, 2016). This model provides a mental map for determining what the team lacks and offers courses of actions for the leader in order to improve effectiveness (Northouse, 2016). The first steps are to make three determinations. Namely, determine whether action is necessary, if so determine whether the action is to address task or relational issues, and whether that action needs to be at an internal or external level of the team process (Northouse, 2016). As an example, the instructor could require that students in the team utilize a discussion board they are able to actively monitor. If the instructor sees the students are veering off track from the assignment goal, they could make the determination of whether to act and alert the students. They could also determine if the issue stems from a task issues such as confusion on the assignment instructions, or relational issues such as disagreements between students. Finally, they could determine whether the issues are internal such as social loafing between members, or whether they are external such as the school’s server being unavailable. The point is that instructors are in a unique position to overcome the inherent challenges these online assigned groups face. They have the opportunity to demonstrate and communicate leadership principles that will maximize the effectiveness of the team and enhance the students overall focus on learning the course subject matter.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 9: Team Leadership. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/fa19/21981–15196/content/09_lesson/printlesson.html