November 28, 2007

Good or Bad, as Long as Employees Agree about their Supervisors, Everyone Is Happy

Research by Dr. Michael Cole

A study by Management Professor Michael Cole finds that agreement among employees regarding their leaders promotes improved dedication and less burnout, despite the quality of leadership.

Work-group members who agree with each other about their supervisors' leadership behaviors may be more committed to their jobs and experience less emotional exhaustion, a new study indicates. This holds true whether they see their leaders as effective or ineffective, or even downright terrible.

"Leadership Consensus as a Cross-Level Contextual Moderator of the Emotional Exhaustion-Work Commitment Relationship," by Dr. Michael S. Cole, Assistant Professor of Management at the Neeley School of Business at TCU (Fort Worth, Texas), and Dr. Arthur G. Bedeian of Louisiana State University, is one of the first studies to examine how group consensus about positive and negative leadership techniques affects individuals' work performance.

The study appeared in October 2007 in The Leadership Quarterly , a highly respected international journal.

The overall conclusion of the research, says Dr. Cole: "There is value to leaders, organizations and employees in creating consensus among group members about leadership behaviors. It strengthens team stability and efficiency, and reduces conflict, stress and anxiety."

Leadership Styles
Dr. Cole and his colleague looked at the inverse relationship between work commitment and emotional exhaustion under four differing styles of leadership.

1.  Transformational -  inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and other energizing qualities;
2.  Contingent-reward Reinforcement - clearly outlined expectations and subsequent rewards or
3.  Management by Exception - leading primarily through punishment and negative feedback;
4.  Laissez-faire - a leadership void, with little guidance or support.

The study found that consensus regarding transformational and laissez-faire leadership boosted work commitment and mitigated emotional exhaustion, while the lack of consensus had the opposite effect.

Contingent-reward reinforcement and management by exception, however, did not exhibit these results and may merit further investigation, Dr. Cole says.

"Certain leadership behaviors influence teams as a whole, which in turn influence each team member's personal commitment to the organization," says Dr. Cole. "In these cases, perceptual agreement among members regarding their leaders increases individual work commitment, whereas disagreement creates stress and conflict among team members."

Addressing this conflict and related hostility requires precious time and energy, which further erodes commitment and leads to exhaustion.

But the effort may be worth it, Cole says.

"Even if an ineffective leader exhibits demotivating behavior, consensus among the work group helps buffer the leader's negative impact. They can bond over it and laugh about it. They form a support network and vent their frustrations to each other," Dr. Cole explains. "Without this outlet, a bad situation would be even worse."

What Businesses Can Do
1.  "Supervisors must understand the value of behaving the same toward all team members so that
     everyone perceives equality," says Dr. Cole.

2.  Since consensus is so important, adding or removing members from well-functioning groups is
     particularly disruptive to achieving team goals. "Teams need stability and a certain tenure in
     their membership," he says. "If members are always being added and taken away, a lot of
     time and energy is expended on resolving conflict. Leaders need to help smooth the transition.

3.  When there is a change in leadership, the departing supervisor should discuss the team's values
     and operating styles with that new leader early on, he says.

Who They Studied
The study looked at 828 U.S. Air Force personnel distributed across 27 occupational groups, with three quarters of the participants being members of the military and one quarter being civilians. About 70 percent were male and 30 percent female, and most had not been deployed overseas to dangerous regions during the previous five years. Data for the study were gathered during work on a much larger project exploring Air Force leadership, morale and retention.

Dr. Cole is following up this study with further in-depth explorations of varying degrees of consensus, and is including other types of workplaces.


Elaine Cole
PR/Events Manager
Neeley School of Business at TCU