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'Inspirational' leadership bad for business

April 25, 2016
Borderless Leadership

In a rebuke to David Brent-style managers the world over, new research suggests ‘inspirational’ leaders may actually harm their employees’ health.

Far from increasing productivity, bosses setting out to enforce a can-do culture risk stressing out their workforce and pressuring vulnerable staff into bottling up health problems, resulting in more absenteeism in the long term.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia monitored 155 Danish postal workers and their managers over three years.

The resulting study, published in the journal Work & Stress, is the first to closely examine the relationship between ‘transformational leaders’, defined as those who encourage staff to go ‘above and beyond the call of duty’, and the effects of employees showing up for work while ill, labeled ‘presenteeism’.

The authors found that, far from the positive employee well-being traditionally associated with highly motivational leadership, such leaders actually exacerbated sickness absence in their workforce over time.

Karina Nielsen, Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at UEA, who led the research, said: “It is possible that high performance expectations pose a risk to both healthy and vulnerable employees and that the motivational aspects of transformational leadership may backfire.”

“Transformational leaders may promote self-sacrifice of vulnerable employees for the greater good of the group by encouraging them to ignore their illnesses and exert themselves.

“This can lead to increased risks of sickness absence in the long term.”

While some managers may be genuinely motivated by a zeal for workplace efficiency, such as Ricky Gervais’s hapless character in The Office, Professor Nielsen suggests many leaders are themselves responding to pressure from above.

“Such leaders express values to perform above and beyond the call of duty possibly at the expense of employees’ health because they have a self-interest in demonstrating low sickness absence rates in their work groups,” she said.

“This pattern may be a particular problem in organisations where managers are rated according to their ability to control sickness absence levels.”

Co-author Kevin Daniels, Professor of Organisational Behavior at UEA’s Norwich Business School, argued transformational leaders should set a less gung-ho example and encourage workers to look after their own health.

“Managers need to strike a balance,” he said.

“They can still encourage staff to perform well, but in a way that is not at the expense of their health and well-being.”

Source: The Telegraph

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