Goal-Oriented Leadership May Not Work for All Employees

woman frustrated at desk
Topic(s): culture, job satisfaction, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: The Downside of Goal-Focused Leadership: The Role of Personality in Subordinate Exhaustion
Authors: S.J. Perry, L.A. Witt, L.M. Penney, L. Atwater
Reviewed by: Mary Alice Crowe-Taylor

The heart of goal-focused leadership (GFL) is to elicit goal-oriented behavior from employees by emphasizing goal achievement. In theory, GFL should contribute to employee resources for handling stress at work by clarifying goals, suggesting ways to achieve goals, structuring tasks, and verifying whether goals have been attained. However, depending on the employee’s personality, this emphasis on goal achievement may or may not be perceived as supportive.


In employees who are less conscientious (less achievement oriented), can GFL cause exhaustion? Yes, if these employees also have low emotional stability. That is, if they are more often distracted by worry and are prone to pessimism. Inherently, these employees have the least amount of “resources” to assist them, and goal-focused leadership may produce exhaustion, through an inability to cope with the stress demands.

However, according to the study, if less conscientious employees have high emotional stability (they are confident and optimistic), they will have adequate resources available to them to cope with a goal-focused leader.


Based on this research, the takeaway for managers who would like to utilize goal-focused leadership is that it works well with highly conscientious employees who are emotionally stable. It also works well for less conscientious employees who are emotionally stable. However, it appears to be counterproductive for employees who are low on emotional stability, as they are likely to experience greater exhaustion. A more hands-off approach with less monitoring and greater “breathing room” may be needed with these employees to reduce their stress reaction. Knowing the high price of employee burnout, managers may also need to tailor their leadership approaches to match employee personalities.


Perry, S. J., Witt, L. A., Penney, L. M., & Atwater, L. (2010). The downside of goal-focused leadership: The role of personality in subordinate exhaustion. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 1145-53.