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Baylor's Sara Perry Brings Transformational Leadership Into Focus

December 18, 2018

Transformational leadership is a grand idea, but it can be hard to enact. As organizational leaders make day-to-day decisions of how to lead, how do they know which option is the transformational choice? Is it better to send an email or host a meeting? Fire an employee or invest in his or her growth? Motivate team members to work together or to accomplish their individual goals?

“Transformational leadership has been studied a lot,” Assistant Professor of Management Sara Perry said. “The construct itself is almost too broad because it includes so much. This [article] was our way of addressing that by finding how you can break it down to bring more focus.”

Perry, along with her co-author Natalia M. Lorinkova of Georgetown University, recently had an article accepted for publication in the Journal of Organizational Behavior about the effects of group-focused and individual-focused aspects of transformational leadership. Through the research, the faculty members aim to narrow the scope of transformational leadership as a broad construct.

The article, “The Importance of Group-Focused Transformational Leadership and Felt Obligation for Individual Helping and Group Performance,” evaluates the effects of the two types of leadership on felt obligation, motivation for helpful behavior and enhanced group performance. Group-focused leadership is characterized by a leader who emphasizes the identity of the group, motivates members to contribute to the group and be a part of the group first and foremost. Individual-focused leadership occurs when a leader considers each person as a distinct individual and motivates him or her based on individual needs and performance goals.

For the study, 36 supervisors and 260 employees at a skilled trade company in the mid-Atlantic U.S. were surveyed. Participants were part of several groups of employees who worked together to some extent, but had individual tasks as well—giving the employees freedom to choose how much or little to help each other.

“We found that leaders who emphasize the group really have an advantage in cultivating a sense of obligation to the group and motivating members of the group to help each other, and those factors led to improved group performance,” Perry, recipient of the Baylor University 2017 Young Researcher Award, said. “In contrast, when a leader had high individual-focused leadership and didn’t focus on the group so much, we saw a decline in helping. It could actually demotivate individuals to help their fellow team members if there’s not a good balance of both of forms of leadership.”

Essentially, the findings suggested high group-focused leadership in conjunction with high individual-leadership focus resulted in the highest levels of helping. In fact, more indicators of individual-focused leadership (and less group-focused) resulted in the fewest reports of helping among work groups.

“If you do have a distributed work force or if you have a large team, focusing your messaging to the whole group very strategically in terms of the group’s identity, the group’s goals, and the benefits of being a part of the group is your best bet, even if you can’t individually attend to each member as much as you would like,” she said.

This is one of a series of articles the co-authors have done together on different styles of leadership and the multilevel aspects of leadership. However, most of Perry’s research is on stress and burnout.

Whether it’s through transformational leadership or avoiding burnout in the workplace, Perry is providing practical strategies for workers who want to do their best.

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