Monday, 2 December 2013

Transformational leaders craft the right emotional states. Positive people are already in them

At their best, leaders get something from their workforce that would have been impossible otherwise. Research on this 'transformational leadership' style suggests that it can inspire employees to more creative performance - such as coming up with new and useful products – as well as encouraging helping behaviours. However, these benefits aren't seen across every study. A new paper suggests one reason is that some people simply don't need what the transformational leader has to offer.

Phillip Gilmore's team proposed that transformational leaders are effective partly through influencing their followers’ feelings . This leadership style is defined by an 'intense emotional component', and its associated behaviours include offering personalised care and concern, demonstrating selflessness, generating optimism for the present and future,  and making people feel safe to think dangerously.

The researchers argue that these behaviours help get followers into a state of positive affect (PA), and that this is the reason for more creative and proactive actions. This is consistent with Barbara Frederickson's Broaden and Build theory, and widespread evidence that we explore, act more prosocially and find more possibilities when in a positive state.


But Gilmore's team asked a simple question: what if followers are feeling good already? They invited their sample - 212 employees in the research department of a China-based pharmaceutical company – to rate their trait positive affect: i.e. their day-on-day tendency to see the world positively and bring energy and curiosity to it. The sample also rated their supervisors in terms of their transformational leadership style, and in return supervisors rated their employees’ creative performance and tendency to perform citizen behaviours like helping others.

The researchers predicted that low PA trait scorers - those 1 SD below the average - would benefit from the emotional lift and encouragement to be open that sits at the heart of the transformational leader's focus, leading to more creative and citizen-like behaviours, but high PA trait scorers wouldn't need this, so their outputs would be unaffected. Analysis confirmed this pattern for creative performance. For organisational citizenship, the pattern was in the right direction but while low PA people showed more behaviours under a transformational leader, it didn't reach statistical significance.

The authors suggest that the employees who may benefit most from transformational leaders are those with lower trait PA, characterised by 'low energy, sluggishness, and melancholy.' But given that the transformational style is commonly adopted by extraverted types likely to have higher trait PA themselves, it's probable that they gravitate toward the like-minded, meaning they may spend more time preaching to the converted. Such leaders may need to roll up their sleeves and engage with those who share their mindset least, seeking to lift them into states of higher PA and reap the dividends this provides.

ResearchBlogging.orgPhillip Gilmore, Xiaoxiao Hui, Feng Wei, Lois Tetrick, & Stephen Zaccaro (2013). Positive affectivity neutralizes transformational leadership’s influence on creative performance and organizational citizenship behaviors Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34, 1061-1075 DOI: 10.1002/job.1833

Further reading:
Wang, G., Oh, I.-S., Courtright, S. H., & Colbert, A. E. (2011). Transformational leadership and performance across criteria and
levels: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of research. Group & Organization Management, 36(2), 223–270.
 

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