Patterns of emergent leadership in distributed teams

Nora Irene Misiolek, Syracuse University


This study examined patterns of emergent leadership in distributed teams that interacted using both asynchronous and synchronous media. Two patterns of emergent leadership were observed. Centralized leadership, in which one or two individuals emerged as the team leader(s), and distributed leadership, in which no single individual or combination of individuals emerged as the team leader(s). No differences were found at the team-level in media usage and communication behavior. However, analysis of performance data indicated that distributed leadership teams performed significantly better on the task than centralized leadership teams.

A parallel multimethod analytic scheme in which the transcripts of team interaction were first analyzed using a deductive content analytic framework and subsequently analyzed using an inductive hermeneutic framework was used to analyze the transcripts of team interactions. The results of the inductive analysis indicate that the use of behaviors as meaningful units of analysis over-represented instances of leadership in the data. Leadership attempts emerged as the more meaningful unit of analysis in both asynchronous and synchronous media. These were defined as communication initiated by a team member intended to influence other team members to act or respond in a way that indicates agreement and understanding about what needs to be done (task substance) and how it can be done (task process) effectively, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives. (Yukl, 2002, p. 7).

Examination of communication content in both media indicated that leaders engaged in more communication related to the process and substance of the task in centralized leadership teams. There was no evidence that leaders engaged in social, or group maintenance, communication. Leaders in centralized leadership teams were found to have dominated team interaction, engaging in more process- and substance-oriented communication and in more total communication. This was not the case in distributed leadership teams when the communication behavior of team members was examined.

Analysis of the behavioral content of leadership attempts indicated that eight behaviors were common in leadership attempts in both asynchronous and synchronous media. This suggests that there may a core behavioral repertoire in which leaders engage.