Which Leadership Style Leads to Burnout?

Topic(s): burnout, emotional intelligence, leadership
Publication: Journal of Occupational Health Psychology
Article: Leadership Styles, Emotion Regulation, and Burnout
Authors: K.A. Arnold, C.E. Connelly, M.M. Walsh, K.A. Martin Ginis
Reviewed by: Steven Guy

Leadership style is often indicative of the type of emotions that leaders will intentionally choose to use when interacting with their employees. According to the researchers (Arnold, Connelly, Walsh, & Martin Ginis, 2015), leaders engage in three primary response strategies: surface acting, deep acting, and genuine emotion. They say that the type of response strategy will affect the likelihood that a leader will experience burnout. Here is a brief description of each type of strategy that leaders may use: 

  • Surface acting is when a leader displays one emotion to his or her employees, while internally experiencing a different emotion.
  • Deep acting occurs when a leader can manage his or her internal emotions to meet the needs of a situation.
  • Genuine emotion is an outward display of a leader’s spontaneous reaction to a situation.


Transformational leaders are inspirational visionaries. They are known for their ability to utilize deep acting and genuine emotion to help guide their employees. These methods are effective because leaders appear more genuine when dealing with their employees.

Transactional leaders are typical managers who try to maintain the status-quo. They also use deep acting but are more likely to engage in surface acting as well. While surface acting is considered less emotionally demanding, this type of leadership may appear superficial, which may lead to employees becoming less trusting of management and less engaged in their work.

Laissez-faire leaders are passive leaders who grant autonomy and support. They are most likely to use genuine emotion when dealing with employees. Genuine emotion is the least emotionally demanding method and, while beneficial in some circumstances, is used by laissez-faire leaders more to avoid doing mental work rather than to solve problems. This form of leadership is considered the most organizationally destructive and offers little value to employees. 


Researchers found that transformational leaders were more likely to use deep acting and genuine emotion. Transactional leaders were more likely to use deep acting and surface acting; however, surface acting was not an indicator of burnout. A strong association was found between laissez-faire leadership and using genuine emotion. Oddly enough, the use of genuine emotion was found to have the strongest relationship with burnout, indicating that transformational leaders and laissez-faire leaders are more likely to experience burnout than their surface acting peers. These results were opposite of what the researchers expected. 


Organizations want leaders who can motivate, engage, and instruct. Clearly, research indicates that the laissez-faire leader may not be as well suited for these purposes. Furthermore, although transactional leaders may be effective at encouraging employees to work, it is clearly the transformational leadership style that offers organizations the largest upside. Finally, while transformational leaders are commonly thought of as the best at their craft, they too are human and must be cautious not to emotionally overexert themselves when working and potentially suffer burnout.


Arnold, K.A., Connelly, C.E., Walsh, M.M., Martin Ginis, K.A. (2015) Leadership styles, emotion regulation, and burnout. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 20(4), 481-490.