Transformational leadership may be too much of a good thing.
Transformational leadership may be too much of a good thing. Although it’s associated with employee well-being in the short term, this type of leadership in excess may damage employee health over time.
Who Are Transformational Leaders?1
They’re mentors, motivators, and role models who inspire and coach their team members to obtain individual and organizational success.
Transformational leaders exhibit one of the most commonly studied types of leadership behavior. Characterized by features like emanating enthusiasm, using inclusive language, and showing empathy, this leadership style is associated with multiple workplace advantages like job satisfaction, self-efficacy, and proactive behavior. But does its benefit extend to employee health?
Multiple studies have shown positive effects of transformational leadership on team members’ well-being in the short term,2,3,4 but few have investigated long-term effects, and even fewer have focused on sickness-related absenteeism.
Recently, researchers from the University of East Anglia investigated the relationship among group-level transformational leadership, presenteeism (working while sick), and sickness absenteeism (absence due to sickness). They examined 155 postal workers in Denmark over a 3-year period, asking participants to evaluate their managers and describe work attendance.
They reported that transformational leadership “may promote self-sacrifice” among those already vulnerable to presenteeism. Their results indicate that transformational leadership in year 1 predicted sickness absenteeism in year 2, but not year 3.
Additionally, “presenteeism in year 1 moderated the link between transformational leadership in year 1 and sickness absenteeism in year 3.” In other words, those reporting higher levels of presenteeism initially reported higher levels of sickness absence later on.
Working while sick has several negative implications. For example, sick employees endanger coworkers by exposing them to communicable diseases.
Overemphasizing standards such as high performance expectations and working for the benefit of the team may promote an environment where groups succeed at the expense of employee health.
To prevent this, organizations can take the following steps:
1. Avoid evaluating managers on ability to control their followers’ sickness absence rates.
2. Incorporate the importance of employee well-being in leadership training.
3. Educate employees on the importance of recovery and impact of contagious diseases.
To truly “transform” their leadership, leaders must recognize when there’s too much of a good thing. In the meantime, they must keep motivating and innovating while being mindful of their team’s well-being.
1. Lanaj K, Johnson RE, Lee SM. Benefits of transformational behaviors for leaders: a daily investigation of leader behaviors and need fulfillment. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2015;101(2):237-251. doi: 10.1037/apl0000052.
2. Arnold KA, Turner N, Barling J, Kelloway EK, McKee MC. Transformational leadership and psychological well-being: the mediating role of meaningful work. J Occup Health Psychol. 2007;12(3):193-203.
3. Jacobs C, Pfaff H, Lehner B, Driller E, Nitzsche A, Stieler-Lorenz B, Wasem J, Jung J. The influence of transformational leadership on employee well-being: results from a survey of companies in the information and communication technology sector in Germany. J Occup Environ Med. 2013;55(7):772-778. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0b013e3182972ee5.
4. Nielsen K, Randall R, Yarker J, Brenner SO. The effects of transformational leadership on followers’ perceived work characteristics and psychological well-being: a longitudinal study. Work & Stress. 2008;22(1):16-32. doi: 10.1080/02678370801979430.