Can seemingly harmless, disengaged or laissez-faire bosses be hurting romantic relationships of their employees and affecting their loved ones at home? A recent study suggests just that.

It is widely known that experiences in the workplace, such as leadership, tend to affect individuals beyond the walls of the organization. Traditionally, however, studies have looked at strongly positive and strongly negative leadership behaviors and focused on the effects for employees who work with these leaders.

Researchers from Carleton University widened the lens to look at the influence of laissez-faire leaders. They suggest laissez-faire leaders unintentionally could not only be affecting the well-being of their employees, but also may disrupt their home lives, affecting romantic relationships and the well-being of romantic partners of their employees.

The following article highlights the findings of a study authored by:

Do Employees’ Workplace Leadership Experiences Influence Romantic Partners? Workplace Leadership and the Work-Family Interface

As part of this study, 243 romantic partners of employees working full-time and residing in the United States and Canada answered an online survey where they indicated their perceptions of their romantic partners’ experiences of leadership at work, as well as their romantic relationship outcomes. The average age of participants was 36 years, with a near-equal gender split between men and women. Most participants reported living with their romantic partner between 1-5 years.

In a subsequent part of this study designed to examine the perspectives of both members of matched couples, 121 employee-romantic partner dyads completed online surveys. Employed participants were just over 60% female, with an average age of 41, and had worked with their current supervisor an average of 3 years. Data was collected from their romantic partners as well. Most participants were married (86%), and employed participants reported being with their romantic partners just over 8 years. This part of the study explored the extent to which employees’ experience of leadership influenced their own health, and in turn, their romantic partners’ perceptions of relationship closeness, satisfaction, and love.

Leadership styles and romantic relationships

Experts in the field have shown that the style of leadership an employee experiences at work is also likely to affect the employee at home. Interestingly, because work experiences spill over from one individual to others who are close to them, it is possible that supervisor behaviour may also influence how couples feel about their romantic relationship and influence a romantic partner’s own well-being, even though the romantic partner did not personally experience the employee’s workplace circumstances.

“The influence of negative leadership could be far-reaching,” said lead researcher, Dr. Dupré.

“It is known that leaders influence employees, and also that romantic partners’ experiences – including their work experiences – influence each other in a variety of ways. Thus, it is important to understand the influence workplace leadership might have at home, to determine if leadership indirectly extends beyond the workplace.”

Some studies argue that the behaviour of laissez-faire leaders, who provide little direction or support to their employees and rarely intervene in their employees’ activities, can be harmful to their subordinates. Employees working with a laissez-faire leader tend to have little support or lack information to complete their tasks, causing stress and burnout over time. As a result, individuals depleted from their energy at their workplace tend to have less energy to devote on their romantic partner or children at home. In turn, this lack of engagement can be negatively perceived by family members, resulting in conflict.

What happens at work carries over to life at home

This study suggests that leadership experiences at work influence those close to the employee outside of the workplace, including their romantic partners.

In exploring the effects of leadership behaviours, researchers compared the influence of laissez-faire leaders to the influence of abusive leaders, which is known to be harmful. The survey contained questions to help researchers identify if study participants felt their partner was exposed to an abusive or laissez-faire leadership style. Researchers also found the following:

  • Romantic partners whose partners were exposed to either an abusive or laissez-faire supervisor at work, rated their relationship closeness as lower than those whose partners were less likely to be exposed to negative leadership experiences at work.
  • The findings were similar when looking at both abusive supervision and laissez-faire leadership, which suggests that even though laissez-faire leadership might be perceived as harmless, this form of leadership can carry negative consequences, that extend beyond the workplace.

‘Bad’ bosses tend to harm romantic relationships and partners of workers

To understand the process of how employee health, well-being and romantic relationship deteriorates due to negative leadership, researchers delved deeper by matching couple responses. Researchers wanted to understand how romantic partners might be influenced by experiences of their partners at work.

They found that employees exposed to negative leadership in the workplace, such as abusive and laissez-faire supervision, were more likely to report lower general health, which was related to relationship closeness and their romantic partners’ relationship satisfaction and feelings of love towards their partner.

Dr. Dupré commented on these findings. “We know that the impact of ‘bad’ bosses is significant,” she said. “This study extends these findings, suggesting that these effects go beyond employees and may affect those individuals close to employees.”

“An employee preoccupied with a neglectful or abusive supervisor might be less able to meet fundamental relationship needs of their romantic partner.”

Suggestions for future research

The research team would like to see more research exploring negative leadership to gain a deeper understanding of how work might influence individuals in various ways. Their suggestions for future studies include:

  • Contrasting employee perceptions versus actual leadership to shed more light on what most strongly influences employees.
  • Following romantic couples over an extended period to help researchers draw stronger cause-and-effect conclusions on the effects of negative supervision.
  • Examining how the type of work, such as working from home, might act as a buffer between supervisor and employee.

The research team felt it could also be beneficial to investigate the influence of negative leadership on other family members to understand any potential impact on, for example, children’s views towards work.

When asked about the significance of the study, Dr. Dupré answered:

“While we know that leadership behaviours are related to employee outcomes, research like this suggests that the effects may be even more far-reaching, making it critical for researchers to continue to focus on this area, and for organizations to consider the well-being of employees and their families.”

Article Notes

Research Highlight writer: This Research Highlight was written by Fiorella Jansen-Nicorescu. CRIW’s Research Highlights share relevant and actionable information about workplace inclusion with a broad audience.

References: This article references work of other scholars, a list of references is available from the first author, Kathryne Dupré.

Other Information

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This study was made possible, in part, through the generous support from the RBC Foundation.

About the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW)
The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) is a research centre at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, focused on conducting and sharing research that advances diversity, equity and inclusion at work. By making research findings available to the public and connecting academia with the broader community, CRIW aims to advance knowledge and drive change towards more inclusive workplaces that welcome and support greater participation of all peoples.