Experimental approach to leadership research
The project is a field experiment where leaders were randomly assigned to either one out of three treatment groups or a control group. Initially, we recruited 672 leaders, and 504 leaders (and their 15.000 employees) are still part of the project after experimental intervention and post treatment surveys. Attrition (25 %) is primarily due to leaders changing jobs. The participating organizations consist of tax sections, bank branches, higher secondary schools, primary and lower secondary schools, and day-care centers. We surveyed all relevant Danish leaders in the five sectors in spring 2014 and offered the leaders the opportunity to participate in the project. If the leaders accepted our invitation (knowing that they would have 75 % change of getting the free leadership training), they were randomly assigned to four groups. Three of the groups received a one-year leadership training program between September 2014 and June 2015. Each of the training programs was designed on basis of leadership approaches that in international research had shown positive effects on organizational performance. The training programs were conducted in 21 classes each with approximately 20 leaders to minimize travel time for the participants. The training consisted of attendance for four days combined with reading, continuing feedback between participant and teacher as well as among the participants themselves and an action plan for the leader’s own organization. The training can be accredited as a master course. Except for the leaders’ attendance to the training, leaders in the control group and their employees were treaded equally compared to the training groups. They have all participated in the same surveys, and all the leaders received a report in the fall of 2015 with specific information about their own leadership development from 2014 to 2015. We also investigated some of the participating leaders’ closest superiors.
The comparison between the groups makes it possible to see the effect of the leadership training as well as analyze the effects of changes in leadership behavior. This is especially relevant with regard to employee’s motivation, prevention of sickness absenteeism, and the quality of the services provided by the organizations.
The content of the leadership training
Three different leadership training programs were conducted: one focusing on transformational leadership, one focusing on transactional leadership and one that combined the two approaches to leadership.
Transformational leadership focus on the leader’s ability to formulate, communicate and maintain a vision for the organization. If the employees work under a clear vision, they are expected be able to work independently for the organizational goals. Furthermore, sharing a vision in an organization can give a sense of relatedness for the employees.
Transactional leadership focuses on creating incentives to advance the employees performance. This is done through either material or verbal rewards for high effort and good results. Sanctioning is also theoretically a part of transactional leadership, but this dimension was not part of the leadership training, given that it demotivated employees and lead to bad results. We did, however, discuss how sanctions as a last resort can be necessary.
Based on three rounds of questionnaires to leaders and employees, LEAP has gained a lot of ground in terms of understanding the relationship between leadership and performance. Many different aspects of the relationship have been uncovered, and the following will describe the most important findings in three areas. First, we will focus on the effect of the leadership training program. Second, we will look at findings regarding the effects of leadership behavior. Third, we will look at how contextual variables moderate the effects of leadership.
The effects of leadership training
As many public and private leaders participate in leadership training programs around the world it is relevant to wonder whether they have an effect. Based on the results from the LEAP projects the answer is yes. Andersen, Bøllingtoft & Jacobsen show that according to employee evaluations the leaders increasingly use leadership approach which they received training in. Hence, the leaders who received the transformational leadership program increasingly formulate, communicate, and maintain a vision for their organization. Likewise, leaders who received the transactional leadership program increasingly use material and verbal rewards, especially compared to the control group.
However, there is some variation in the effect. An et al. find that the transformational leadership program has a stronger effect on public sector leaders. In addition, it has the strongest effect on leaders that in the beginning of the training didn’t use transformational leadership. Transactional leadership training lead to changed behavior for leaders of both public and private organizations, but also show decreasing effect for leaders that already use the leadership behaviors. An & Meier also find that women are more likely to benefit from leadership training than men are.
The effects of leadership
Many existing cross-sectional studies have shown a relationship between transformational leadership and employee motivation, and Nielsen et al. also find a positive effect of transformational leadership and verbal rewards on employee motivation in the LEAP data. Andersen et al. confirm the effect qualitatively through interviews and observational studies in 16 day-care centers. The LEAP project also tests the mechanisms in this relationship. Jensen & Bro find that transformational leadership increases employee motivation by satisfying basic human needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. Furthermore, Jensen et al. shows how leaders communication is crucial for the effectiveness of transformational leadership. Their analysis finds that face-to-face communication increases the effect of transformational leadership.
Leadership can thus increase employee motivation, but LEAP has also uncovered other effects. An et al. show that the use of transformational leadership and verbal rewards increases job satisfaction of employees, which then can decrease the employees’ intention to leave their organization. Jensen also finds that transformational leadership can increase the value-fit between employees and the organization.
The leadership literature has had some trouble establishing a relationship between leadership and sickness absenteeism. As leadership promotes motivation, it might be argued that it should also decrease absenteeism. Andersen et al. shed light on this complex relationship. They find that public service motivation increases sickness presenteeism, i.e. employees attending work despite being sick. The positive association between sickness presenteeism and sickness absenteeism then seems to neutralize the negative direct effect of public service motivation on sickness absenteeism. Hence, leaders should be aware of potential dark sides of increasing employee public service motivation.
Under which conditions does leadership have (the biggest) effects?
The context under which a leader operates, moderates the association between leadership and the different relevant outcomes. LEAP has investigated a number of conditions for leadership to have an effect. Jacobsen & Andersen show that leadership only has a positive effect on motivation if there is a high degree of value congruence between leaders and employees. Bro et al. argue that can be “low hanging fruits” in sectors with low citizen contact in terms of stronger effects of transformational leadership on public service motivation. The logic is that when the employees’ initial perceived impact on society is low, the leader can show them that they make a societal difference and thus support their public service motivation. Similarly, employees in sectors with low citizen contact tend to have low perceived impact on others, and leaders can motivate employees by increasing their user orientation if they highlight how the employees contribute to specific beneficiaries.
Leadership is also affected by the span of control, i.e. the number of employees the leader has. Jensen and Ladegaard find that leadership has a positive effect on self-reported performance when the leadership span is between 5 and 12. According to Holm-Petersen et al, a narrow span of control might make it easy for the leader to be visible for the employees, but broader spans can give more flexibility in the organization. Furthermore, leaders with responsibility for very few employees might not have an identity as a leader or enough time to perform their leadership task, given that they also have street-level tasks. Holm-Petersen et al. estimate that the largest effect of transformational leadership is at leadership spans between 14 and 20.
Finally, it is possible to combine transformational and transactional leadership. Arguments can point to both positive and negative effects of combining the two leadership approaches. Nielsen et al. finds that regarding motivation a combination of transformational leadership and pecuniary rewards is counterproductive. Transformational leadership in itself has a positive effect on employee motivation, but this effect decreases when combined with these material rewards. Leaders should be careful when combining leadership behavior from different approaches, but the combination of use of verbal contingent rewards and transformational leadership seems to work well.