Transformational leaders: Are you detrimental to your own health?

by | Apr 22, 2016 | Entrepreneurship, Mindset

There is a dark side to being one of the many transformational leaders so popular today. If you push yourself to perform above and beyond the call of duty, you may actually be harming your health. A study released today by researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) found that managers who inspire their staff to perform above and beyond the call of duty may actually harm their employees’ health over time. I believe this translates to entrepreneurs, as well.

transformational leaders can push others and themselves to work when sick
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The research findings suggest that constant pressure from so-called “transformational leaders” may increase sickness absence levels among employees. They also indicate that some vulnerable employees in groups with transformational leaders may in the long term have increased sickness absence rates if they ignore their ill-health and frequently show up for work while ill, known as presenteeism.

How many times have you pushed yourself to work when you were sick? (Asks the person typing with 1.75 hands.) When you ignore illness, even something like the common cold, and push yourself to work rather than getting the rest you need, you actually make things worse. I’ve found that when I get sick, if I let myself rest for three days, I get back to work with vim and vigor. If I push myself to work sooner than that, I feel sick longer, thus reducing my overall productivity.

The study, published Friday in the journal Work & Stress, was led by Karina Nielsen, professor of work and organizational psychology, and Kevin Daniels, professor of organizational behavior at UEA’s Norwich Business School. They looked for the first time at the relationship between presenteeism, transformational leadership and sickness absence rates. The results have implications for how organizations might effectively deal with employees’ health and well-being. And, in my opinion, how entrepreneurs deal with their own health and well-being.

Transformational leadership, according to Wikipedia, is a style of leadership where the leader works with employees to identify a needed change, creates a vision to guide that change through inspiration, and executes the change in tandem with committed members of the group. Previously, this style of leaders has been associated with positive employee well-being, better sleep quality, fewer depressive symptoms and reduced general absenteeism in the short term.

However, the new study suggests that a transformational leader who encourages their group to make an extra effort at work may exacerbate sickness absence, as high levels of presenteeism may result in reduced opportunities for recovery along with the risk of spreading contagious conditions, such as the common cold, in the long term.

Basically what they’ve found is that transformational leadership, like all things in life, has a dark side that can harm you if you push things too far. There is a balance that can be struck between inspiring excellence and encouraging proper self-care.

Prof Nielsen said the relationship between transformational leadership and sickness absence was complex. “It is possible that high performance expectations pose a risk to both healthy and vulnerable employees and the motivational aspects of transformational leadership may backfire,” he said. “Transformational leaders may promote self-sacrifice of vulnerable employees for the greater good of the group by encouraging them to ignore their illnesses and exert themselves. This can lead to increased risks of sickness absence in the long term.”

With entrepreneurs — especially those who go solo — the danger is in not allowing their bodies to guide them when to rest. And I’m having to pay attention to this even now. My mind is ready and rearing to go back to work after two months off recovering from my accident. However, I still can’t walk without a walker. I can’t use my left hand very well. And I can’t even sleep on my side in bed! I’m not ready for full-time work and I have to honor my body’s healing process. Pushing myself could hinder that process and possibly even make me back-track.

I can’t have that!

“The assumption that ‘more transformational leadership is better’ does not hold over time,” said Prof Daniels. “As role models, transformational leaders should display healthy behaviors when motivating people, they should monitor and check them, and encourage workers to look after their own health. Managers need to strike a balance, they can still encourage staff to perform well, but in a way that is not at the expense of their health and well-being.”

As an entrepreneur, you need to do this for yourself, as well.


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