The Cost of Leaders Helping Followers with Personal Problems

stressed out employee

In addition to providing direction and helping followers with work tasks, leaders also frequently help employees solve personal problems. Leaders may spend about 2.5 hours per week discussing personal problems raised by their employees, such as depression or challenges with children. Despite the prevalence of leaders helping with personal problems, the effect on the leaders has not been widely considered. Therefore, new research (Lanaj & Jennings, 2020) examines how the emotions or mood of leaders are impacted after they help followers with personal problems.


The researchers found that leaders feel worse after helping their employees with personal problems. Personal problems tend to involve heavy and sensitive emotions, which may then be transferred to the leader as they try to assist. Additionally, negative feelings can stem from the disruption to the leaders’ work schedule or from the effort involved when leaders manage their own emotions, such as empathy, discomfort, or surprise.

Though leader personal helping generally relates to negative mood, the researchers explored a few characteristics about the leader or situation that may alter the degree of negative feelings. When leaders were able to see the positive impact of their personal helping and focus on the meaningful difference they made for followers, they did not experience as much negative mood. Similarly, leaders that had more managerial experience did not experience as much negative mood because they had practice responding to a variety of follower personal problems and regulating these stressful experiences. However, when leaders provided task-related help to followers in addition to personal help, leaders experienced even more negative mood.


After leaders provide task-related and personal help, the researchers explored whether followers actually perceived leaders as being more engaged in work that day. Though offering task-related help made leaders appear more engaged, personal helping was not related to engagement. Interestingly, the positive relationship of task-helping and perceived engagement was not as strong when leaders also had high personal helping behavior. Employees may feel that task-related helping is less effective after the leader expended effort and used up personal resources by helping others with personal matters.


This research shows how leaders can feel bad after helping employees with personal matters, and in some situations this type of helping can even make leaders seem less engaged. Leaders occupy central roles in the workplace and can impact others if they have bad moods. Therefore, leaders might consider helping employees with personal problems immediately prior to a break or at the end of the workday. Additionally, leaders can seek out feedback from employees on how their personal help was effective, which will help reduce the potential for negative moods.

Aside from emergencies, employees should try to seek personal help when leaders are less busy with task-related assistance. They should also ideally look for personal help from more experienced leaders when possible. Finally, followers should be sure to express gratitude to leaders for their personal help. All of these behaviors will help reduce the bad moods that leaders could experience, as well as help leaders facilitate the most effective help.


Lanaj, K., & Jennings, R. E. (2020). Putting leaders in a bad mood: The affective costs of helping followers with personal problems. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(4), 355-371.