Which Behaviors Cause Team Leaders to Emerge?

employees gathered in a meeting
Topic(s): leadership, performance, teams
Publication: Academy of Management Journal (2019)
Article: Not just what is said, but when it’s said: A temporal account of verbal behaviors and emergent leadership in self-managed teams.
Authors: F. H. Gerpott, N. Lehmann-Willenbrock, S.C. Voelpel, M. van Vugt
Reviewed by: Emma Williamson

Self-managed project teams are becoming highly popular in organizations and may even be the future of business. While these teams begin as nonhierarchical, leaderless teams, often one or several members will informally take on leadership responsibilities. This concept, termed emergent leadership, is important for a team’s performance, as teams who display higher levels of emergent leadership perform better on their tasks. The importance of emergent leadership has led researchers to examine how informal leadership develops within teams.


One way of understanding how emergent leadership forms is through examining the communication patterns and behaviors that occur within team interactions. Emergent leadership is thought to change and evolve through a series of interactions between team members. Accordingly, it seems plausible that certain team behaviors may be more important for establishing leadership at each stage in the completion of a project. This is what researchers (Gerpott, et al., 2019) tested by examining which team behaviors were predictive of emergent leadership over the course of completing a project.

The behaviors that the researchers assessed fit into three categories: task-oriented, relations-oriented, and change-oriented. Task-oriented behaviors are those that help achieve high-quality outcomes on the task, such as managing time appropriately to meet deadlines. Relations-oriented behaviors are focused on improving relations within the team by supporting and including others, such as active listening. Change-oriented behaviors are aimed at challenging the status quo, such as articulating a vision or encouraging risk-taking.


In order to assess when teams engaged in these three different categories of behaviors, the researchers video-taped team meetings at the beginning of their project, halfway through, and shortly before the project was due. By coding the different behaviors exhibited by team members in these meetings, the researchers were able to see which behaviors were most important for establishing leadership at each meeting.

The results indicated that task-oriented communication led to greater emergent leadership at all three meetings. On the other hand, change-oriented communication was important for emergent leadership at the first meeting and diminished in importance over the next two, while relations-oriented communication increased in importance and led to greater emergent leadership at the final meeting.

So, what does this all mean? Overall, these results support the idea that emergent leadership is a dynamic phenomenon where certain team members will hold leadership positions at different points in the project. Additionally, certain behaviors are important for supporting this leadership at various points in time, such as the utility of change-oriented behaviors (like risk-taking) that occur early on in the project.


The researchers propose that this research has two key implications for organizations. First, leadership training programs may benefit from incorporating content that describes the developmental phases of teams. This may encourage flexible thinking and teach teams which types of communication may be most important at various points in their project. Second, an understanding that leadership is fluid and evolves throughout interactions may be important to managers in formal leadership positions. This understanding may not be learned in a short-term training program, but through a lifelong developmental process.


Gerpott, F. H., Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., Voelpel S. C. & Van Vugt, M. (2019). Not just what is said, but when it’s said: A temporal account of verbal behaviors and emergent leadership in self-managed teams. Academy of Management Journal, 62(3), 717-738.