Transformational Leadership: The Good and the Bad

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Transformational leadership produces qualitative—even revolutionary—positive change. It inspires and motivates teams to go from “good” to “great,” and from “great” to “greatest.” It’s based on the energy, enthusiasm, and passion of transformational leaders—visionaries with strong team-building skills who challenge long-held assumptions and beliefs. By setting ambitious goals and providing incentives, transformational leaders motivate others to reach high levels of performance. At the same time, they provide opportunities for personal and professional growth, thus empowering others and leading them to develop their own leadership potential.

Now, results from a new study suggest that transformational leaders might encourage not only high performance levels, but also poor health. To carry out the study, researchers monitored 155 Danish postal workers and their managers over a three-year period. While transformational leadership has previously been associated in the short-term with positive employee well-being, better sleep quality, fewer depressive symptoms, and reduced general absenteeism, results from the new study suggest that, in the long-term, employee health can be negatively affected. Why? According to the study authors, transformational leaders may encourage presenteeism—a condition in which employees continue working even when sick, resulting in reduced opportunities for recovery and therefore increased risk for long-term illnesses and absences. In addition, presenteeism may lead to the spread of infectious diseases, as for example the common cold, among team members.

Karina Nielsen, one of the two study authors, said in a press release: “It is possible that high performance expectations pose a risk to both healthy and vulnerable employees and the motivational aspects of transformational leadership may backfire. Transformational leaders may promote self-sacrifice of vulnerable employees for the greater good of the group by encouraging them to ignore their illnesses and exert themselves. This can lead to increased risks of sickness absence in the long term.”

Kevin Daniels, the other study author, said: “The assumption that ‘more transformational leadership is better’ does not hold over time. As role models, transformational leaders should display healthy behaviors when motivating people, they should monitor and check them, and encourage workers to look after their own health. Managers need to strike a balance, they can still encourage staff to perform well, but in a way that is not at the expense of their health and well-being.”

It should be pointed out that, on the basis of their results, the study authors only hypothesize that work pressure created by transformational leadership may prevent employee recovery from illness (by encouraging them to go to work despite poor health)—such hypothesis has not yet been tested. However, the authors recommend to include health-related elements in transformational leadership training. For example, intellectual stimulation should not only focus on developing competencies, but also on building resilience and coping skills. Leaders could also be trained in incorporating well-being and health into the vision, goals and objectives they develop for work groups.

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8 comments

  1. This is a fantastic article. It highlights that many people struggle to maintain balance in their life. The global demand for productivity has created a stigma for self-care, and taking personal time, this includes taking time off to raise a family. Being a good, great, or the greatest employee should mean knowing when to ask for help, or when to stay home. Continuing to go to work with the flu is a public health risk, and should be frowned upon. If an employee is too uncomfortable to stay home from work, even if they are sick with an infectious disease then something needs to change. My husband, who is a graduate student at Emory recently had the flu. After missing two days of school, he decided to go on the third day even though he was still very sick. He was so concerned with continuing his work, and productivity it was worth going to school with the flu. Anyone in a leadership role, whether it is a PI, boss, etc. should be be aware of encouraging presenteeism, and work to instead encourage balance, and self-care.

    • I agree with Eileen when you say, “Being a good, great, or the greatest employee should mean knowing when to ask for help, or when to stay home.” I think that this type of attitude is more prevalent in higher level careers when people are needed for the success of the company. However in low-income jobs where positions are not guaranteed, people are not allowed to have this type of attitude. The turn over right is so high in jobs like these. I’m sure people with minimal waged jobs would love to be able to take a few days off while they recover. However, because their jobs are easily replaced with minimal training this is not really an option for them. In addition to that, these people are living paycheck to paycheck. When they take days off, they are looking at checks that are lower than what they can afford. This can cause a domino affect of problems with their homes, with their bills, maybe even with their families. I think the mindset is definitely there, but for some people they just don’t have any other option but to go to work.

    • Aigner makes a great point in mentioning that there are some employees that feel that they literally cannot afford to take off from work. Not only does their income prevent them from taking extra days off to recover, their job position may be one that is easily replaceable. There are currently seven states that still enforce an at-will employment rule. At-will employment allows employees to dismiss an employee for any reason and at any time. The reason for dismissal does not need to be justified. The courts in those states will not recognize a loss claim by the fired employee. Knowing that the possibility of losing your job for any reason without a way to protect yourself is always daunting.
      Presenteeism can also promote poor health as more workers feel the pressure to produce, especially in corporate settings. They do not take time out for themselves to relax and relieve stress. In 2014, the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm, released a survey that showed that about 40% of Americans do not take their vacations for similar reasons. Although the sample size only included 1303 people, the reasons given for not taking a vacation were telling. Most were afraid of the amount of work that they would be waiting for them on their return. 35% of the people felt that no one else was capable of doing their work, so they couldn’t leave. A quarter of the people surveyed did not want to be seen as replaceable, not dedicated enough, or possibly miss out on a promotion or pay raise due to taking time off. Feeling guilty about taking time off and feeling that the company’s culture did not condone taking time off made up 20% of the reasons given for not taking vacation time.
      I knew someone that worked for a major corporation as a supervisor lead of an international project. She literally went to bed with her laptop and cell phone every night in order to be ready at the drop of a hat to answer a phone call or take care of an issue. She was “on call” 24/7. Not only did her company expect that of her, it trickled down to her team as she came to expect the same of them. There was one story she told me when one of her team could not find a babysitter for his children and asked to take the day off. She told him that was not an acceptable excuse and told him to resolve the childcare issue at any cost and get back to work, because the team had to make the deadline that day no matter what. It was awful!
      Transformational leadership should definitely include emotional intelligence and sensitivity to workers’ needs as well as setting healthy lifestyle examples even while trying to motivate those same employees to reach their goals. I also feel that looking out for the well-being of the employees needs to start from the very top. Owners, CEO’s, Presidents, etc., need more awareness and should incorporate and promote that idea of well-being to ensure that their company runs smoothly, effectively and efficiently.

  2. I say this too myself all the time that some professors won’t care if you’re sick you still have to do your work and study. I defiantly think as women we tend to exert ourselves we don’t give ourselves the down time we deserve. During the semester especially when the weather changes I get sick and rarely do I give myself the necessary time to get better so I only end up getting sick for longer. It’s nice to read an article that kind of says you don’t have to push through all the time and push yourself past you’re limits It’s okay for you to take time to yourself and make you’re heath a number one priority. That it’s okay to take care of yourself

  3. I can relate to this article because this past semester I haven’t really taken care of my health. I didn’t want to disappoint people by not doing my best and missing classes. Its not that my teachers were expecting too much out of me, but more like I was expecting too much out of myself. By the end of the semester, I kind of burnt out and was getting more sick easily. My friend was in the same boat as me her teachers and classmates were pushing her to do great artwork. She pushed herself to the point were she only slept 2-4 hours a night and barely ate. She kind of broke down halfway through the semester. This article is very accurate you need to know when to take care of yourself. You have to know when you’ve reached your limit and that taking a break is ok.

  4. While reading this blog post, what stood out to me was the quality of a transformational leader to “challenge long-held assumptions and beliefs” and how a genuine transformational leader with this quality would handle an ill employee. If a transformational leader is partially characterized by their ability to have an unorthodox perspective, then it seems to follow that instead of conforming to the traditional belief that an employee should continue to work while ill, that a transformational leader would realize the dangers and disadvantages of an ill employee continuing to work and therefore encourage them to postpone their work until they recover. Not only does encouraging an employee to postpone their work while they are ill protect the health and well-being of other employees, but also protects the quality and integrity of the project that the ill employee would be working on. Seeing that a transformational leader is also characterized by having high performance expectations, it seems that it would be more likely for a transformational leader to prefer an employee to perform when they are healthy and alert rather than when they are ill and possibly weak. While I can understand how some individuals in leadership may encourage employees to continue working while ill and as a result unconsciously lead to the development of employee presenteeism in the workplace, based on the definition and characteristics of a transformational leader, I would not expect for a leader who embodies all the characteristics of a transformational leader to consciously or unconsciously instill presenteeism in their employees. As individuals conduct further studies on how transformational leaders handle ill employees, I presume that their findings will differ greatly from what they are currently hypothesizing.

    • Jacinta has a good point on the traits of a transformational leader–as the word implies, a transformational leader innovates employees to work harder and encourages them to be the most productive they can be. This article had a study which showed that the opposite was true, but this may not be true for every transformational leader. Someone who seeks change should be aware that a change requires effort. One has to come up with new ideas and plans, wager the outcome and effectiveness of each idea, and make sure that whatever the decision is, the outcome would produce a net gain. Yet, one of the two writers for the studies done remarked that “high performance expectations pose a risk to both healthy and vulnerable employees.” In jobs, the leaders are the employers/bosses/higher-ups.Perhaps this unhealthy conditions that rose in the employees may have developed because the employees felt pressured from their superiors and tried to meet their expectations. If this is true, the problem could have originated from the employees. It is ironic that someone who expects high performances should burden his/her followers to work until they’re ill.
      If what I have assumed is true, then I can relate to this on a personal level as well–my mom constantly asked how my grades were, and she told me that she believed in me. Even though she only meant to encourage me, it had the opposite effect; I became more burdened and pressured to work harder in order to please her, and I stopped paying attention to my health. My sleeping and eating patterns were irregular, and I relied heavily on caffeine. I realized it and talked it out with my mom. As so, while I believe it is important for transformational leaders to support employees to take care of their conditions, I also believe that they should confront the followers from time to time; lack of communication does lead to misunderstanding after all.

  5. Having worked at Sonic as a skating carhop for the first two years I spent in Georgia, and now being here, where I have both a PI and a boss to answer to on top of each semester’s professors, I really love this blog and the discussion that ensued. I distinctly remember a time I was on the 17th day in a row of work at Sonic in the summer and I had to leave and go to the hospital for bronchitis. I had been sick for weeks it seemed, but I was expected to work. When I came back to work two days later with a doctor’s note my scheduled shifts were reduced and my manager told me that it was because I had left. I was working over 40 hours a week to save up for school while paying a minimal rent, and he didn’t care that I was sick (and probably overworked). Flash forward to today where I’ve been taking an 18 credit hour semester on top of researching with a bioremediation lab and working at least 20 hours a week. My PI encourages me to stay home and rest when I’m sick, and my managers at work also understand (albeit, to a slightly lesser degree). I have seen my fair share of managers, but never in my life have I met such a transformational leader as my PI. While she pushes me to do better and more, she still understands that if you’re sick, you can’t really do anything besides get better unless you want both your work and your health to suffer. I definitely agree with Dasom in that it takes communication from both parties to set boundaries when one’s ill and encourage productivity when not.
    I tend to overwork myself, as with such varied interests, I branch out and spread myself thin. This is part of the problem. The other part is that we have been socialized to idolize the overworked, overstressed, and overcaffeinated. How little one sleeps and how much one sacrifices has become somewhat of a model for success to everyone’s detriment. In Japan, it is admirable to die at the desk and many work 70 hour work weeks, and the US is not far behind. I know I am guilty of pursuing other dreams while procrastinating on current projects until the last minute and working myself to the point of exhaustion (i.e. finals week). However, we need to be true transformational leaders, the ones Jacinta mentioned, and lead through example by taking the time for ourselves to heal quickly and get back to maximum productivity without the sacrifice of our wellbeing.
    The more we succeed and set the example, the more others will feel comfortable doing the same. With our combined efforts of self care and effective communication, we can create the space in which others can do the same, maybe even those that can’t afford to financially.

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