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The Double-Edged Sword of Leadership Task Transitions in Emergency Response Multiteam Systems

Journal(s): Academy of Management Journal
Published: September 13, 2021
Author(s): Margaret M. Luciano, Virgil Fenters, Semin Park, [abartels3:profile], Scott I. Tannenbaum

General Description
The phrase “stay in your lane” is commonly used to affirm the importance of doing your assigned tasks and only your assigned tasks. If you see an important task that needs to be done that isn’t your responsibility, should you do it? Before you decide whether to switch lanes, consider the authors’ research, based on observations and recordings of first responders completing mass-casualty incident simulations. They’ve identified three essential lessons to consider. First, be mindful of the environment. Second, beware of crossing team boundaries. Finally, remember to update your team and leaders. You don’t necessarily need to stay in your lane — just be sure to merge both out of your lane and back in appropriately.

Academic Abstract
Multiteam systems (MTSs) operating in complex and dynamic environments often have a formal hierarchical leadership structure. However, it is unclear whether individuals should stick exclusively to performing their designated tasks within the hierarchical leadership structure, or if, instead, they should switch between different types of tasks to align efforts with changes in the environment. We refer to such task switching—an individual shifting to or from tasks designated for a particular leader position—as leadership task transitions. Our qualitative study of six MTSs responding to live-actor mass-casualty incidents revealed that leadership task transitions are a double-edged sword as they can simultaneously help manage the MTS–environment interface and harm MTS internal functioning. More specifically, leadership task transitions benefit the MTS by rapidly reallocating effort to alleviate the dominant environmental pressure at that time. However, they also harm the MTS by disrupting its internal task-based cycles. Rapidly restoring the disrupted cycles mitigates this harmful effect, but such cycle restoration is not successful when there is a high level of cycle activity or when multiple areas of the MTS are disrupted. Our findings generate new knowledge on how and why leadership task transitions impact MTSs. Implications and future directions are discussed.

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