Supervisors’ support and leadership style play important roles in employees’ attitudes towards work. For instance, transformational leadership style, which is recognized for its coaching and mentoring qualities, is known to impact employees’ feelings towards their work and improve workplace engagement. In turn, work engagement leads to healthier, happier, well-performing employees.
What role, if any, does gender play in the effectiveness of transformational leadership? Can employees’ attitudes about gender roles influence perceptions about their supervisors and their leadership behaviours?
A researcher at Carleton University set out to provide greater insight into the impact of gender on perceptions of transformational leadership style and its influence on employee work engagement and well-being. To understand those interconnected relationships, 169 front-line workers in the United States (80.5%) and Canada (19.5%) and 342 undergraduate students at Carleton University participated in the study.
The Impact of Gender and Subtle Sexism on Perceptions of Transformational Leadership Style and its Effect on Employee Outcomes
Transformational leadership defined
Over a course of a typical day, supervisors often display various leadership behaviours. The widely-used Full Range of Leadership (FRL) Model, developed by researchers, Bruce Avolio and Bernard Bass, categorizes those patterns of behaviours into three leadership styles – laissez-faire, transactional, and transformational.
Laissez-faire leaders provide little direction or support to their employees and rarely intervene in their employees’ activities. Transactional leaders are action-oriented and tend to use rewards or punishment to motivate their employees to perform well to reach organizational goals.
Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their employees to perform their best to achieve organizational objectives. Avolio and Bass differentiate four categories of behaviours within the transformational leadership style:
Idealized influence: Transformational leaders act as role models to motivate their employees by acting as ethical and moral agents themselves.
Inspirational motivation: Transformational leaders provide clearly articulated, optimistic visions of the organizational goals and encourage employees to follow that vision.
Intellectual stimulation: Transformational leaders promote employees’ growth by challenging them to innovate and examine problems from new perspectives.
Individualized consideration: Transformational leaders provide the necessary emotional and informational support to their employees when they need it through coaching and assistance, by being understanding, and knowing when circumstances require unique considerations.
Researchers have connected transformational leadership style with positive employee outcomes, such as higher work engagement, perceived health, and well-being.
Work engagement contributes to employees’ overall well-being
Work engagement can be described as an employee’s positive feelings associated with their work, where the employee becomes absorbed in performing their work with energy and dedication. The positive impact of work engagement on employee well-being has been vastly researched and well-documented.
To convey employees’ overall well-being, this study looked at two types of well-being: hedonic and eudemonic well-being. Hedonic well-being refers to positive feelings and life satisfaction, whereas eudaimonic well-being refers to well-being derived from the pursuit of interests and purpose in life.
The study found that transformational leadership style was positively associated with work engagement among research participants. Furthermore, work engagement was also positively associated with both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being of research participants.
Research author, Ekaterina Martynova, thinks the transformational leadership style should be taken into consideration by employers.
“I would say that transformational leadership style is an important predictor of work engagement,” she said. “Companies should consider promoting transformational leadership training among supervisors to not only improve engagement and productivity, but also to contribute to employees’ potential for living satisfying and fulfilling lives.”
At the same time, research also shows that the gender of leaders and employees can impact employee perceptions and the effectiveness of the transformational leadership style.
Gender stereotypes undermine effectiveness of transformational leadership behaviours when used by female leaders
Existing research suggests that perceptions and the impact of the transformational leadership style may be influenced by the gender of supervisors and employees.
This study examined how perceptions of transformational leadership were impacted by gender and gender attitudes, by comparing how female and male front-line employees and students, rated female and male leaders.
Overall, both female and male participants in this study perceived transformational leadership style similarly in both female and male supervisors. However, when investigating the influence of attitudes on perceptions of transformational leadership, it became apparent that subtle sexism did have an impact.
Martynova noted, “Not so much gender, but gender-related attitudes influence how an employee feels about certain transformational leadership style behaviours, or even if an employee notices when transformational leadership style is used.”
Among front-line workers and students participating in the study, men noticed fewer transformational leadership behaviours when these were used by female supervisors. Moreover, male front-line workers participating in this study, rated female supervisors lower on the intellectual stimulation and idealized influence. This supports existing research that suggests when female leaders use a transformational leadership behaviour, such as intellectual stimulation, that is stereotypically considered masculine, male employees might question the legitimacy or disregard the behaviour altogether. In both samples, male participants were also more likely to endorse subtle sexist attitudes compared to female participants.
This study suggests that attitudes employees hold towards women in the workplace play a greater role explaining differences in perceptions of transformational leadership style compared to employees’ gender. For instance, students endorsing subtle sexist attitudes provided lower ratings of transformational leadership behaviours for female supervisors, even though the students based their judgements on identical emails from fictitious male and female supervisors.
Though these findings are intriguing, it should be noted that most research participants (81.8% of male, 66.7% of female front-line workers) had same gender supervisors. Hence Martynova cautioned against drawing definite conclusions yet. “The small number of male employees with female supervisor makes it difficult to detect significant gender differences,” she said. “Further research is required.”
Why this matters
In discussing the implications of gender stereotypes, this study refers to multiple research that suggest that gender stereotypes are detrimental to women’s career advancement and reinforce the gender gap within leadership positions. Case in point, some researchers argue that inspirational motivation, which is one of the transformational leadership behaviours, is an important factor in promotions to executive leadership positions. Women’s career advancement could be more difficult when followers and superiors of female leaders fail to notice this type of transformational leadership behaviour among female leaders.
When asked about the significance of this study, Martynova commented:
“I would say the significance is two-fold. This study shows organizations that while transformational leadership style is one of the sharpest tools in an employee-engagement toolkit, subtle sexism can throw a wrench into a company’s efforts to reap the benefits in employee engagement and overall well-being,” she said. “This study also adds to existing knowledge that gender stereotypes do impact women in leadership positions.”
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 in the study, The Impact of Gender and Subtle Sexism on Perceptions of Transformational Leadership Style and its Effect on Employee Outcomes.
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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.