What kind of leadership style makes employees creative and engaged? A lot of research points to the fact that a leader who is charismatic, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and attentive towards followers do. However, such a leadership style might not be beneficial for all employees.
In today’s fast moving, complex economic environment, it is important for companies that many of their employees show behaviour that goes beyond what is written down in their work contracts. Employees have to be creative in the sense that they generate new, useful products, procedures, or services. They also have to show what is called “Organisational Citizenship Behaviour” (OCB), or behaviours supporting the social and psychological environment in an organisation. Therefore, companies are highly interested in learning what kind of leadership style is beneficial for creativity and OCB. So far, research has shown that the so-called transformational leadership style is related to the desirable outcome. A transformational leader is charismatic (acts in admirable ways), inspiring (expresses an attractive vision), intellectually stimulating (challenges the status quo), and considerate (mentors or coaches followers).
However, in their article, Phillip L Gilmore from George Mason University in Virginia and his colleagues found this view to be too simplistic. They took a closer look at the mechanism that links transformational leadership to creativity and OCB: positive affect. Transformational leadership behaviours increase positive affect in followers, which in turn is related to creativity and OCB. Therefore, they hypothesised that transformational leadership behaviours would only increase creativity and OCB in employees who are low in positive affect.
In their study, they had 212 employees of a Chinese company rate their positive affectivity and their leaders’ leadership style, while the respective employees’ leaders had to rate their employees’ creativity and OCB. The study showed that in fact transformational leadership was only beneficial for creativity and OCB in employees who were low on positive affect, where it had no impact on creativity and OCB in employees who were high on positive affect. Thus, the equation “Charismatic leaders = creative, engaged employees” holds true, but only for employees who are low on positive affect.
The original article was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. There is an outline of the study on the BPS Occupational Digest blog.
As a consequence, the authors suggest that transformational leaders turn to those followers who are low on energy, sluggish, and melancholic because for them, the leadership style really makes a difference. However, this may not always be easy because research also found transformational leaders to tend to be extraverted and thus higher on positive affect by nature. Therefore, they may prefer to turn their attention to those who are alike (those who are already high on positive affect and energy) instead of those who would need their attention. Thus, leaders should consider turning their attention to those who do not share their own mindset. This might be more effortful and not come as natural, but highly beneficial.