Most leadership research explores the impact that leaders have on their followers. However, new research suggests that, in addition, certain characteristics of followers may influence how leaders are perceived, or may even shape leader behavior. Examining this new perspective could have implications for evaluating organizational leadership and could demonstrate that follower characteristics, not just leader behavior, may also drive follower performance.
Researchers conducted two studies that found significant relationships between follower characteristics and leadership behavior, particularly in regards to abusive leadership and transformational leadership (the kind of leadership that inspires or imbues organizational values).
RESULTS OF THE META-ANALYSIS
In their first study, the researchers (Wang et al., 2019) conducted a meta-analysis (or statistical combination) of 479 previous studies. They included studies in which 1) leader behaviors were assessed by their followers, 2) correlations between follower characteristics and leadership behaviors were found, and 3) participants were working adults who rated their direct supervisors.
Follower Sociodemographic Characteristics and Leadership Ratings
First, the researchers found that compared to men, women tended to rate their leaders high on transformational leadership and low on abusive supervision. Second, follower race was related to the leadership style of initiating structure (i.e., being task-oriented). White followers tended to rate their leaders higher on task-oriented leadership compared to other races or ethnicities.
Follower Psychological Characteristics and Leadership Ratings
With regard to personality traits, agreeableness refers to how well someone gets along with others. The study found that the more agreeable the follower, the higher they tended to rate their leader on transformational leadership, and the lower they tended to rate them on abusive supervision and passive leadership.
Second, this study found that those high on conscientiousness (tendency to be disciplined and dependable) tended to rate their leaders higher on transformational leadership and initiating structure, and lower on abusive supervision. Third, followers who scored high on extraversion (sociability, talkativeness) were likely to rate their leaders high on transformational leadership and initiating structure, and low on abusive supervision and passive leadership.
Fourth, followers high on neuroticism (those prone to psychological stress or emotional instability) tended to rate their leaders low on transformational leadership and initiating structure, but high on abusive supervision, passive leadership, and autocratic leadership (for example, an authoritarian or unilateral decision-maker).
Finally, core self-evaluation (CSE) reflects an appraisal of one’s worthiness and capability. The authors found that the higher the CSE that followers had, the higher they rated their leaders on transformational leadership and ethical leadership. Those with higher CSE also rated their leaders lower on abusive supervision.
RESULTS OF EXPERIMENTAL STUDY
In their second study, the researchers sought to answer two questions: 1) Do actual leader behaviors or follower perceptions of those behaviors contribute more toward leadership ratings? 2) Do correlations between follower characteristics and leader ratings reflect real differences in leader behaviors or differences in how followers perceive the leaders?
The researchers conducted an experimental study of 705 full-time adult employees of US companies. First, participants completed an online survey that measured their characteristics. Two weeks later, participants were randomly assigned to read one of two vignettes: one depicted a transformational leader and the other depicted an abusive leader. After reviewing the vignette, participants rated the behavior of the leader. They also rated the behavior of their real-life supervisors.
Ratings of Transformational Leadership Behavior
Regarding the first research question, the researchers found that actual leader behavior only accounts for 52% of the variation in ratings of the leaders. The other 48% is comprised of follower perceptions and measurement error (which is the inherent inexactness of the study).
Regarding the second research question, the study showed that gender, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism were significant predictors of ratings of the vignette leader on transformational leadership. Additionally, follower organizational tenure, extraversion, agreeableness, core self-evaluations, conscientiousness, and education level were significant predictors of their ratings of their real leaders on transformational leadership.
Ratings of Abusive Supervision
Regarding their first research question, the authors found that actual abusive behavior of the real supervisors accounted for about 33% of the variation in ratings of abusive behavior. Followers’ perceptions and measurement error accounted for about 67% of the variance in ratings of real leaders’ abusive behavior.
Regarding the second research question, agreeableness, core self-evaluations, race/ethnicity, and conscientiousness predicted ratings of real leaders on abusive supervision.
According to the authors, these findings suggest that followers are not passive to leaders’ influence. Rather, they suggest that followers seem to make sense of leader behaviors based on their own personal characteristics, and also that leaders may behave differently toward different people.
The authors say that organizations might consider assessing follower characteristics as part of the leader evaluation process to see if follower characteristics impact the ratings of leaders. Otherwise, inaccurate conclusions may be reached. For example, a supervisor who has more extraverted or agreeable employees could appear to be a more effective leader than an equally effective supervisor whose employees are introverted or less agreeable.
The authors also point out that employee characteristics could influence how supervisors rate the employees. They say that when leaders are trained in employee evaluation, it could be beneficial to include information on various follower characteristics.
Wang, G., Van Iddekinge, C.H., Zhang, L. & Bishoff, J. (2019). Meta-analytic and primary investigations of the role of followers in ratings of leadership behavior in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 70-106.