I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people.--Gandhi
An important literature review was recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Jaana Kuoppala, Anne Lamminpää, Juha Liira, and Harri Vaino looked at studies linking workplace leadership to the well-being of those led. They located hundreds of potentially relevant studies, of which 27 were presented in sufficient detail to include in their meta-analysis.
A meta-analysis, by the way, is a relatively new arrival on the social science scene, and provides a quantitative way of summarizing the gist of different studies of the same topic. Meta-analysis is an attempt to solve the problem often encountered in reviewing a research literature that finds some studies supporting one conclusion, other studies supporting the opposite conclusion, and still others being inconclusive. Meta-analyses treat given studies as individual data points and then calculate an overall summary in terms of the robustness of effects, giving more emphasis to studies with larger samples, more rigorous designs, and so on. Meta-analysis requires assumptions that some would deem heroic, not the least of which is whether and how to regard the measures used in different studies as equivalent. Regardless, meta-analyses have become an important analytic tool in getting a handle on what research actually shows.
Back to the literature review by Kuoppala and colleagues. They included studies from different nations, with both males and females, that measured leadership style on the one hand and employee well-being on the other. The dimensions of leadership style on which they focused were consideration and support. A considerate leader is one who treats employees kindly and fairly. A supportive leader is one who treats employees with concern and provides encouragement. It may seem surprising, or at least disappointing, to learn that not all workplace leaders are considerate and supportive, but there was sufficient variation across these dimensions in the studies reviewed to allow their impact to be calculated..
Across the studies reviewed, employee well-being was assessed in various ways, depending on the study: job satisfaction, job well-being (defined as burn-out, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, or stress related to work), amount of sick leave, and early retirement due to disability.
In all cases, positive relationships were found. The robustness of effects--using meta-analysis jargon--ranged from small to moderate. But even small effects, multiplied over thousands or millions of millions of workers, imply that the impact of "good" leadership on employee well-being is potentially staggering.
Among the studies reviewed, there was no relationship between leadership style and work performance. I hasten to add that plenty of other studies do find such a link, but let us just for a minute consider that leadership style might be more related to employee well-being than to employee performance. There is considerable irony in this possibility given that the thriving pop leadership literature is invariably framed in terms of improving productivity. The literature review by Kuoppala and colleagues suggests that leadership style does affect the bottom line but does so indirectly, through its effect on the well-being of employees.
One can of course quibble with this meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is only as useful as the literature it summarizes, and many of the studies included were not ideal. For example, most studies were cross-sectional--all of the data were gathered at the same time, leaving unaddressed chicken-and-egg-issues. But can we afford not to take these findings and their implications seriously?
A theme running through my blog entries is that "other people matter," and the take-home message of this article is that when leaders treat their employees as if they matter, everyone wins.
Kuoppala, J., Lamminpää, A., Liira, J., & Vaino, H. (2008). Leadership, job well-being, and health effects-A systematic review and a meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 50, 904-915.