How Team Leaders Show Support–or Not

What does a team leader do so that employees know they are being supported? A Q&A with HBS professor and creativity expert Teresa Amabile about new research.
by Martha Lagace

What do leaders do to make employees in creative functions feel supported or not? That was one of the research questions posed by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and colleagues in what has turned into a penetrating study of creativity in organizations. By analyzing nearly 12,000 daily diary entries from employees working on creative projects—everything from making a new high-strength fabric to developing a database for a global hotel chain—they were able to chart how and why team leaders have enormous impact, positive or negative, on creativity.

Amabile et al.'s findings were published in the February issue of The Leadership Quarterly as "Leader Behaviors and the Work Environment for Creativity: Perceived Leader Support." Amabile, an influential scholar on creativity, conducted the research with Elizabeth A. Schatzel, Giovanni B. Moneta, and Steven J. Kramer. She recently discussed their findings with HBS Working Knowledge.

Martha Lagace: You're an expert on creativity who has examined it deeply for many years. What inspired you this time to look at it through the lens of leader behavior?

Teresa Amabile: My co-authors (Beth Schatzel, Giovanni Moneta, and Steven Kramer) and I were doing an exploratory study of daily diaries we had collected from 238 people in twenty-six teams working on creative projects in seven different companies. The diaries were in the form of answers to a brief daily e-mail questionnaire that asked participants to report one event from the day that stood out in their minds. For the average participant, we have about eighteen weeks of daily diaries. As we read and analyzed the nearly 12,000 daily reports we gathered, we noticed that one of the most frequent events reported was some sort of interaction with the team leader. This led us to delve more deeply into the different types of leader behaviors that appeared, and to look at how those specific behaviors influenced people's perceptions of leader support and, ultimately, their creativity.

Q: You make the point that you see "support" as not just emotional encouragement but also practical help in solving problems. Why do employees' perceptions of a leader's support or lack thereof make a difference in their creativity?

A: We found that employees' perceptions of team leader support were more positive when the leader engaged in four types of effective behavior: (1) monitoring the work effectively (giving timely feedback and reacting to problems in the work with understanding and help); (2) providing socioemotional support (showing support for a team member's actions or decisions; helping alleviate stressful situations for subordinates; socializing; keeping team members informed about stressful situations; addressing subordinates' negative feelings; and disclosing personal information); (3) recognizing good work privately and publicly; and (4) consulting subordinates about the work (asking for team members' ideas and opinions; acting on subordinates' ideas or wishes).

We found that employees' perceptions of team leader support were more negative when the leader engaged in three types of ineffective behavior: (1) monitoring the work ineffectively (checking on the status of assigned work too often; displaying an inadequate understanding of subordinates' capabilities or work; providing nonconstructive negative feedback on work done; checking on the status of assigned work for too long; and displaying lack of interest in subordinates' work or ideas); (2) failing to effectively clarify roles and objectives (giving assignments that are not appropriate for the team member); not providing enough clarity about an assignment; changing assignments or objectives too frequently; giving assignments that conflict with other management instructions); and (3) dealing with problems ineffectively (avoiding solving problems; creating problems).

We identified two mechanisms by which perceived leader support appears to influence creativity.

By analyzing each diary entry that reported these types of leader behaviors, we identified one important mechanism by which perceived leader support can influence creativity. The diaries contain a number of instances in which leader behaviors could have affected employees' feelings of autonomy in the work. For example, people whose team leaders are always hovering around to closely monitor their progress are more likely to feel that they have little control over or ownership in the work. Feelings of autonomy, control, and ownership in the work have all been found (in previous research) to influence people's creativity—primarily by influencing how deeply they engage their thinking in the problem and how widely they explore the problem.

Q: Tell us a little about why you and your co-researchers chose to collect daily diary entries via e-mail. In addition, what kinds of companies did you decide to look at? What was the typical team size? What sorts of creativity were the employees supposed to bring to their jobs?

A: We were looking for anything (and everything!) that might have influenced the way these participants approached their work and how successful they were at being creative. We felt that the best way to do this was to get inside the daily experience of people working in the "creative trenches," in real time.

We wanted to look at people in several different teams, in companies from a few different industries, in order to generalize our results as much as possible. Thus, we studied nine teams from two chemicals firms, nine teams from three high tech firms, and eight teams from two consumer products firms. The typical team size was nine people. The creative projects included new product development (e.g., a high-strength fabric; a home health aid, an electronic recording device), solving complex client problems (e.g., developing a database management system for a global hotel chain); and solving complex internal problems (e.g., developing a new methodology for testing home health aids).

Q: What did you learn from the two "extreme teams" you followed out of a total pool of twenty-six? One, which you call the "Vision" team, received the highest rating for daily perceived leader support. The other, the "Fusion" team, was at the bottom. What were they doing differently?

A: The Vision and Fusion teams presented a fascinating contrast, partly because they were in the same industry (chemicals) and were working on similar projects. The leader of the vision team, whom we call Dave, was not a particularly charismatic leader. Rather, he was quietly effective through a number of consistent behaviors: He monitored progress on the project, at reasonable intervals, rather than making team members feel that he was monitoring them personally. In addition, he essentially monitored his own work for them, frequently reporting to them on his own project tasks. Moreover, he frequently consulted them for their ideas on the project—ideas that were often implemented.

He was a champion for the project, selling it throughout the organization whenever he heard of doubts that others had about it. In the course of selling the project across the organization, he gathered useful technical and tactical information that he then brought back to the team. He frequently recognized good work on the project, almost always in a public setting (such as a team meeting). Over time, positive spirals appeared in the Vision team. For example, Dave's external information gathering, along with his defending and selling of the vision project, provided the team with raw material for creative idea generation and encouragement to tackle the project's complexities, which, by enhancing team members' creativity, gave Dave something tangible to show the next time he sold and defended the project.

By contrast, the leader of the Fusion team, whom we call James, was ineffective on many counts. He micromanaged the work by narrowly defining assignments, constantly inquiring about individual progress, and trying to direct people's work. He didn't champion the project or serve as an information-gathering ambassador for it. James rarely recognized good work and, when he did, it was in a private—rather than public—setting.

Over time, negative spirals developed. For example, James' narrow definitions of the project tasks deprived the project of the creative ideas the team might have generated if given more latitude. Without that creative thinking, the team's performance suffered, likely reinforcing James's basic tendency to micromanage and closely monitor individual team members. That micromanaging and negative monitoring angered the team members, who wasted their time venting their frustrations about James rather than working productively on the project.

Q: Diarists often wrote about negative leader behavior—as in micromanaging subordinates and kowtowing to upper management. Most leadership literature, you say, emphasizes the positive. How does negative behavior affect creativity and perceptions of leader support?

A: For whatever reason (and there are several possibilities), reports of negative leader behavior were more common in the 12,000 diary entries than reports of positive leader behavior. Given that all companies we studied were profitable and respected in their industries, we find this pattern striking. Perhaps one reason for this skew is that people seemed to have stronger negative emotional reactions to negative leader behaviors than the positive emotional reactions they had to positive leader behaviors. Moreover, the negative emotional states tended to be more specific (e.g., anger and frustration) than the positive ones, which were rather diffuse positive feelings.

The good news is that, when a leader stops engaging in a negative behavior and does something more positive, it really gets people's attention in a positive way.

Q: You have focused on creativity here, but do you think leader behavior—good and bad—would have a similar impact in companies where the work is fairly uncreative?

A: Yes. In my twenty years of research in organizations, I have found that creativity and productivity are usually strongly correlated. I think that what we have discovered are leader behaviors that can support both creative and productive work.

Q: What's next for you?

A: With a different set of co-authors, I am working on a study of how emotion might affect creativity. Our preliminary findings suggest that, for the most part, positive emotions are associated with higher creativity and negative emotions are associated with lower creativity. However, there are a few interesting instances of high creativity under negative emotion. We're now exploring what might account for this.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.