How group-oriented leaders create high-performing teams


Everyone knows what it’s like to have a bad boss. They’re overbearing or completely absent. They take credit for others’ work. They’re abusive and ungrateful to their staff. They’re rigid and inflexible. And they’re almost certainly incompetent. One study of 35 European nations finds that 13% of employees are stuck with a bad boss. Another report suggests that one in seven US workers feel that their manager engages in hostile behaviors toward them. And according to research from the American Psychological Association, 75% of Americans say their boss is the most stressful part of their workday.

Bad bosses are also one of the single greatest predictors of employee dissatisfaction and talent exodus. Toxic corporate culture is over ten times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate. But while we can all recognize terrible managers, it’s often much harder to put our finger on the profile of a great boss.

In our work, we’ve found that there are two types of leaders: individually-oriented leaders, who focus on building a personal bond with the individuals on their team, and group-oriented leaders, who spend more time building a vision and a sense of camaraderie. Both types of leaders know how to make people feel valued, but only group-oriented leaders can make people feel part of something bigger than themselves. That shared sense of connection is a powerful tool for building high-performing teams.


The power of the group-oriented leader

While experts, writers, and leaders themselves often overlook this critical skill, group-oriented leaders tend to lead the most successful groups.​​ Research has found, for example, that employees who have more group-focused managers—the type that communicate a shared vision and spend time building collective camaraderie—feel more identified with their work teams. These teams, in turn, have higher levels of group performance and feel more effective.

Teams with stronger social identities also exhibited better performance by individual team members. These leaders not only brought out the best in their teams, but the best in the individual members that comprised them.

It turns out that leaders who use group-oriented language are also more successful. In 2013, researchers analyzed the campaign speeches of every winner and loser who had sought to become Australia’s prime minister since 1901. Victors in these elections used collective pronouns (“we” and “us”), as opposed to individual pronouns (“I” and “me”) significantly more often than the candidates who lost. Politicians who won these races said “we” or “us” once every 79 words in their speeches, compared to once every 136 words for the runners-up—nearly twice as frequently.

Similarly, a recent study found that companies that used collective pronouns in their annual reports were more profitable. Each additional time they used “us” or “them” was associated with nearly an extra million dollars more in annual profits.

Thinking and talking like a group-oriented leader is clearly linked to a number of important outcomes for leaders and organizations. Social psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam have referred to these effective group-oriented leaders as entrepreneurs of identity, because they are uniquely skilled at creating a shared sense of identity for success.

How to think like a group-oriented leader

Can people harness their own entrepreneurial potential? Of course. It starts with recognizing the power of groups and understanding the psychology of identity. There are a few things that any leader can do to start acting like an effective group-oriented leader.

  1. Think and talk like you care about the group. Effective leaders are focused on collective well-being, rather than their own selfish interests. Find ways to make people feel included and valued, including using the inclusive language (‘we” and “us”).
  2. Use symbols to signal identity. If you walk into any sports stadium, you’ll immediately see a plethora of team colors and symbols. Fans love to buy this swag to symbolize their loyalty and connection with other fans. These symbols are like a bat signal to other group members. Create your own symbols of identity.
  3. Reward collective performance. Virtually every organization, including the universities we work for, focuses on rewarding individual performers. But many fail to dole out rewards to teams and groups when they achieve collective success. Find ways to layer in collective rewards for team success, as well as for the unsung heroes who selflessly put their groups first.
  4. Pay attention to social norms. It’s not enough to build a group identity. Once people identify with a group, they automatically look to other group members to determine how to act and feel. This is why it is important to create highly visible social norms that will mobilize the team for success. Norms provide the group culture that determines success.
  5. Create procedures that foster group success. Great leaders understand the power of procedures to ensure fairness and outcomes that group members will see as legitimate.

Leaders who think about their job in terms of the benefits of the entire group act this way naturally. But the rest of us have the capacity to adopt this same mindset. It’s within our power to include people in our thoughts and words, using language and action to generate shared identities and a sense of connection.

No matter our situation, whether we’re running a business, coaching our daughter’s soccer team, or volunteering for a charitable organization, we can learn from the group-oriented leader—and draw a broader circle that brings other people in.

Dominic Packer and Jay Van Bavel are psychologists and the authors of The Power of Us.