Transformational Leadership: Good for You and Good for Them

Transformational leadership is characterized by motivating, inspiring, and coaching employees to achieve change and innovation. As you can imagine, research has supported the benefits of this leadership style for the followers of such an inspirational leader. For example, research has found that followers of transformational leaders have greater job satisfaction and more creativity. But new research (Lanaj, Johnson, & Lee, 2015) has found that transformational leadership is also beneficial to the leader. How does that happen?

AFFECTIVE EVENTS THEORY AND SELF-DETERMINATION THEORY

Affective events theory basically says that the little interactions and work-related activities that happen over the course of a day can change our moods. Makes sense, right? If I get yelled at by my boss, I might start to feel a little down. If my boss returns, apologizes, and offers be a raise, I might feel a little better. The bottom line is that every interaction can matter; employees aren’t just stuck in the same mood for the whole day.

Self-determination theory basically says that people function optimally when they have three basic needs met. The first need is competence, which means that people have to feel like they know what they are doing. The second need is relatedness, which means that people have to interact and feel an association with other people. And the final need is autonomy, which means that people have to experience some degree of control over their life and their activities. When these needs are met, people will feel good and be highly motivated.

Affective events theory and self-determination theory combine, say the authors, to help us understand why transformational leadership can benefit the leader. They say that the kind of behavior that transformational leadership entails may help the leader to fulfil the three basic needs of self-determination theory. By engaging in transformational leadership, people will be more successful leaders and thereby experience competence. By connecting with others in a more diplomatic and trust-building way, leaders may experience relatedness. Finally, by engaging in a leadership style that seeks to influence others (and not merely respond to them), leaders may experience autonomy. In this way, engaging in transformational leadership can cover the three basic needs. When affective events theory is considered, it means that every little action that transformational leaders do can make them feel like their three basic needs are being met.

RESEARCH RESULTS

In two studies, researchers indeed found that transformational leadership has positive effects for the leaders themselves. Transformational leadership behavior led to leaders experiencing more positive affect (which basically means good moods) and less negative affect (bad moods) compared to the amount they experienced when using other leadership styles.

Personality mattered too. The authors found that introverts benefitted more when having their basic needs fulfilled. That is to say, when needs were fulfilled, introverts experienced a stronger association with good moods than extraverts did. It’s possible, say the authors, that extraverts are more likely to be in good moods anyway and so they have less room for improvement. Also, the researchers found that when needs are fulfilled, neurotic people experienced a stronger association with fewer bad moods than less neurotic people did. Similarly, people with neuroticism may start with a higher degree of bad moods, which can be reduced more easily, compared to people who don’t have a lot of bad mood in them to begin with.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study shows that leadership style does not merely affect the followers. Instead, leadership style can have important outcomes for the leaders themselves. By identifying the specific ways that transformational leaders help themselves, we have yet another reason to engage, or train people to engage, in a leadership style which seems to benefit the entire workplace. This is especially important because transformational leadership may involve giving followers a higher degree of autonomy, and using inspiration instead of command. One may mistakenly think that this modus operandi is only done to benefit employees but serves no function for leaders themselves. One may even believe that it sacrifices the authority or control of a leader. Instead, research shows that transformational leadership has benefits for everyone.