How inspirational managers can be harmful to workers

by L&D29 Apr 2016

Are you striving to be an inspirational leader and pushing your team to their limits in the process?

You might want to rethink your approach.

In fact, constant pressure from 'transformational leaders' can increase absence levels among employees, according to new findings from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK.

Moreover, some workers with transformational leaders might have increased absence rates in the long term if they ignore their ill-health and often show up for work while sick.

The study was led by Karina Nielsen, professor of work and organisational psychology, and Kevin Daniels, professor of organisational behaviour at UEA's Norwich Business School.

In response to the findings, the authors recommended that transformational leadership training should include skills around improving resilience.

The study is called 'The relationship between transformational leadership and follower sickness absence: The role of presenteeism' and is published in the journal Work & Stress.

"It is possible that high performance expectations pose a risk to both healthy and vulnerable employees and the motivational aspects of transformational leadership may backfire," said Nielsen.

"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.

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

The research involved postal workers and their managers in Denmark over three years.

"The assumption that 'more transformational leadership is better' does not hold over time. As role models, transformational leaders should display healthy behaviours when motivating people, they should monitor and check them, and encourage workers to look after their own health,” said Daniels.

“Managers need to strike a balance, they can still encourage staff to perform well, but in a way that is not at the expense of their health and well-being."

The authors added that transformational leadership training should include health-related aspects. 

Specifically, leaders could be trained in incorporating well-being and health into the vision, goals and objectives for work groups, said the authors.

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