Leadership and motivation?
Research on motivation and leadership continued for many years with little interaction between the two areas, although more recently motivational concepts have been drawn upon to understand leadership processes. Many motivational theories were posited to have direct implications for leader behaviour, however the evidence for motivational impact is unclear. As motivation is an abstract construct, motives can only be inferred from reports or performance outcomes, not directly measured. Making these inferences are difficult because of the complex, dynamic and multi-causal nature of the concept, and wide variations in expression, furthermore there is considerable debate concerning the nature of the Leadership construct, which we shall discuss elsewhere on the forum. These issues make an assessment of the impact (effect or influence) of leadership on motivation at work, a difficult task. So, do leaders motivate?
Firstly, we need to unpack a little what we mean by ‘motivation’. Definitions concern influences on the direction, vigour and persistence of action. Work contexts are broad and varied, however in most cases organizations need people to be attracted to their organization and stay, perform tasks in a dependable manner and to do so in creative and innovative ways. Whilst one could argue that the latter requirement is not always present in work situations, motivation is of increasing interest as a potential explanation for workers productivity, effort and attendance. How can we assess and measure what impact leadership has upon this process?
In many cases the impact of leadership on motivation tends to be inferred by outcomes, particularly focusing on group or company performance, although work has been carried out on absenteeism (see Porter, Bigley & Steers, 2003). However it is possible that a leader can motivate subordinates without this making any difference to effort or outcomes, conversely there are many other things a leader can do to improve performance that are not linked to motivation, therefore such studies are limited.
Other research uses multiple levels (e.g. follower, leader, leaders’ supervisor) often of performance ratings or constructs such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Although it has been suggested that more satisfied workers have a greater chance to perceive their jobs as motivating and take advantage of motivational interventions, the link between these concepts and motivation is unclear. Furthermore, research on attributional biases suggests individuals often view leaders as making a difference only in retrospect, therefore such ratings are prone to error (see e.g. Chemers 1997). Indeed such a broad range of measurement have been used, that this makes comparisons difficult, increasing the potential for confounding. Much research is correlational, making causal direction impossible to assess, and many other variables which cannot be controlled for are likely to influence findings. These issues of measurement have considerable implications for evaluation of research and theories, but firstly we should consider in what ways theories may inform us of a leadership-motivation link.
Theoretical Basis for a link
Steers et al., (1996) suggest ‘one of the most important impacts of organizational leadership, whether it be effective or ineffective, is on the motivation of organizational members’ (p618), but the links between leadership and motivation are often implicit. A great variety of theories of motivation exist, and a correspondingly great number of leadership theories have been developed, some we can discuss elsewhere on this forum). Theories of motivation can be classified on a continuum from proximal to distal (distance from actual behaviour), and content (dispositional/choice focus) or process (perception/volition focus). It is most likely that leadership behaviour will affect more proximal and processual aspects of motivation, making these theories more likely to inform. Motivational theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are still used to help understanding, but as little research supports the ideas these have been taken over by goal setting and exchange based theories of motivation. In terms of leadership, path-goal theory, and theories of transformation versus transactional leadership, have taken over from some of the earlier ideas. However, I will leave the theory for another day, and concentrate right now on two types of leadership – those at the top of the organization, and those in charge of teams:
a) Organizational Leaders
Much research assumes a link between CEO leadership, motivation and performance, but there is controversy over leadership impact on organizational performance. De Vries (1996) argues for links between top leaders and high performing organizations, although little robust empirical work is cited. Some suggest these outcomes are partly due to Transformational forms of Leadership, although the links are unclear, and even the more academic research has serious weaknesses. It is possible the outcomes considered are too far removed from the construct of motivation, perhaps the results will be clearer if we consider teams?
b) Team Leaders
Some evidence indicates that if a Leader is missing, member motivation may be low, implying that simply having a leader can increase motivation. Others argue that substitutes for leadership can make a leaders role unnecessary, however research indicates that leader effects are not neutralised, suggesting an emotional bond with a leader cannot be replaced (in Chemers 1997). Furthermore much of the ‘substitutes’ research replaces aspects that many would define as Management rather than Leadership.
Some suggest the presence of well-defined leaders may reduce a group’s ability to experiment, this view is supported by evidence that Charismatic leaders may deny empowerment – for some individuals this may result in de-motivation, although again, little systematic research has been carried out on this. It has also been shown that in routine reliable performance areas, charismatic leadership effects are neutralised (see Howell & Costley, 2006).
Research from a Social Exchange perspective suggests particular forms of team leadership can empower subordinates, which leads to increased satisfaction and fairness perceptions, and improved performance. There is also evidence of a significant relationship between delegation and subordinate performance and satisfaction. Deci (1990) argues that social influence strategies can attenuate intrinsic motivation; if one accepts a definition of leadership as a social influence process this suggests a positive influence for leadership. Yet there is evidence that non-contingent rewards and punishment are ineffective and may demotivate
The above evidence, although mixed, does suggest potential negative and positive effects of leadership on follower motivation, however, most of the cited research is correlational, therefore no causal direction can be proven, constructs are often ambiguous, and many studies are weakened by attributional biases. Perhaps difficulties with finding evidence are due to there being no leadership impact on motivation at all?
No Leadership Impact?
Some argue that leadership is purely an explanatory category, used after the event, due to attributional and prototype processes and a need for causal and controlling principles. It is suggested that leadership, in reality, has no direct impact. Others suggests this argument is misplaced, as it is just as likely attributions of outcomes to leadership is widespread because of direct experience of leadership effects. However, the evidence suggests leadership is often attributed after the event, (Steers et al. 1996) lending weight to constructionist arguments.
Others argue that much employee motivation is actually out of a leaders control (Shamir et. al 1996), due to the multitude of meanings that originate outside the organization, however it is acknowledged that these meanings can be influenced through the leadership function, influencing organizational culture, perhaps this is a key to motivation? The next article will consider this aspect.
Chemers, M.M. (1997) An Integrative Theory of Leadership, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M., (1990) ‘A motivational approach to self: integration in personality’ in R.A. Dienstbier (ed) Perspectives on motivation, Nebraska Symposium on Motivation,
De Vries, M.K., (1996) ‘Leaders Who Make a Difference’, European Management Journal vol. 14, no. 5, p.486-493
Howell, J.P. & Costley, D.L. (2006) Understanding behaviors for effective leadership. 2nd edition. Pearson.
Porter, L.W., Bigley, G.A. & Steers, R.M. (2003) Motivation and work behaviour, 7th edition, McGraw-Hill.
Shamir, B., House, R.J. & Aarthur, M.B. (1996) ‘The Motivational Effects of Charismatic Leadership: A Self-Concept Based Theory’, in Steers, R.M., Porter, L.W., & Bigley, G.A., Motivation and Leadership at Work, 6th Edition, McGraw-Hill International.