Faculty Research: The Price of Transformational Leadership
September 11, 2019
Transformational leaders are organizational rock stars. They create meaning and purpose, getting ordinary teams to achieve remarkable results. But new research by Isenberg School of Business Assistant Professor of Management Joanna Lin suggests that leaders who engage in “transformational” behaviors often pay a personal cost.
In two studies looking at roughly 200 leader-follower groups, Lin and colleagues discovered that transformational leadership behaviors—which include exhibiting charisma, listening, and motivating workers to move beyond “self-interest” to pursue “collective goals”—exact a toll. These energy-intensive behaviors put leaders at risk for emotional exhaustion and make them more likely to consider quitting their jobs, especially if they work with employees who aren’t conscientious or competent.
“This study says, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We know there are a lot of beneficial outcomes in transformational leadership, but there may be some downsides to leaders as well,’” Lin says, adding that organizations pay high costs when talented managers leave.
A Cautionary Tale
Current literature is lopsided, Lin and colleagues Brent Scott (Michigan State University) and Fadel K. Matta (University of Georgia) argue. Most recent research has found that followers of transformational leaders reap big rewards, and such leaders gain influence and respect within their firms. But too few studies have investigated what these efforts cost those leaders.
Conducting weekly surveys over six weeks, Lin and her coauthors found that engaging in transformational leader behaviors towards employees who rank low on conscientiousness and/or competency (based on self-reported associations with words and phrases including “organized,” “systematic,” and “I come up with good solutions,” among others) increased a leader’s emotional exhaustion, and those feelings fueled a desire to leave the job. “These detrimental consequences occurred over and above benefits to followers (Study 1) and benefits to leaders themselves (Study 2),” she writes.
She argues that leaders have a finite amount of energy, focus, and enthusiasm in any given day. When leaders feel like those resources have been “squandered” on employees who don’t perform up to expectations, they experience a feeling of resource loss. (Lin notes that this loss is perceived by the leader; studies have generally validated that employees almost always gain from transformational leadership.) Lin frames it as a “conservation of resources” response—in feeling they’ve not gotten the desired results from their efforts, frustrated leaders instinctively move to conserve their remaining resources.
Pick your battles
So what’s the solution? It’s not for leaders to stop being engaged and charismatic in the workplace or to shun less competent employees who arguably need good leadership the most. Instead, Lin advises leaders to adopt a more self-aware, strategic use of their skills. If they feel energetic and positive in the morning, that’s a time to put forth the extra energy. When energy is at low ebb, they shouldn’t force themselves to mimic energy or enthusiasm they don’t feel.
Firms can contribute by making it okay for leaders to take breaks and recharge. Better hiring policies and performance management systems can increase employee competence. They can encourage candor, where leaders can acknowledge frustrations without having to feel “on” all the time. Other protective strategies may emerge with additional research. Lin is currently investigating whether everyday moments of family happiness and fulfillment, such as playing with children or sharing a meal with a partner, affect a leader’s ability to “give more” at work. Transformational leadership is an “important leader behavior,” Lin acknowledges. “We hope that our work not only challenges the way we think about transformational leader behaviors, but that also it stimulates future scholars to take a more balanced look at the pros and cons.”