Distributed leadership in health care teams: Constellation role distribution and leadership practices

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Background and Purpose:Recent literature has been critical of research that adopts a narrow focus on single leaders and on leadership attributes and has called for attention to leadership that is distributed among individuals and to practices in which leaders engage. We conducted a study of health care teams where we attended to role distribution among leadership constellation members and to loose or tight coupling practices between leaders and the remainder of the team. This focus provides insights into how leadership can be practiced and structured to enhance team functioning.Methodology:A qualitative, multicase study of four teams was conducted. Data collection involved 44 interviews with almost all the members of the teams and 18 team meeting observations. Thematic analysis was conducted by the two authors.Findings:Leadership constellations can give rise to leadership role overlaps and gaps that may create ambiguity within teams, ambiguity is diminished if the leaders can agree on which leader assumes ultimate authority in an area, the presence of more leaders does not necessarily entail more comprehensive fulfillment of team needs, and teams’ needs for tight or loose leadership practices are influenced by contextual factors that we elaborate.Practice Implications:(a) It is important to recognize areas of overlap and gaps in leadership roles and to provide clarity about role boundaries to avoid ambiguity. Role mapping exercises and open discussions should be considered. (b) Attempting to spread formal leadership responsibilities informally among individuals is not always a workable strategy for addressing team needs. (c) Organizations need to examine critically the allocation of resources to leadership activities.

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