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Fostering Attachment for Leaders Can Prove Transformational, UW Researcher Finds

April 12, 2021

Positive daily experiences with their families generally help leaders in their efforts to be transformational in the workplace, according to research by a University of Wyoming faculty member and colleagues.

But some leaders benefit more from positive family experiences than others.

The research by UW College of Business Assistant Professor Shawn McClean, along with co-authors from Texas A&M University, the University of Iowa and Purdue University, was detailed in a recent article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers explored why managers face difficulty in being consistently transformational to their subordinates -- inspiring and motivating employees to move beyond self-interest toward a collective vision.

“This may be especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic when, for many people, it takes considerable effort just to stay focused on today, let alone focus on the future,” McClean says. “However, as employees and managers return to the workplace, it is critical that organizations seek to identify ways to encourage transformational leader behaviors at work.”

The research team’s theory was that, because transformational leadership requires a great deal of energy, skill and effort on the part of managers, those supervisors need ongoing encouragement to inspire their subordinates to embrace and generate novel ideas. The managers also need energy to provide for their subordinates’ personal needs. All are key elements of effective transformational leadership.

McClean and colleagues’ main question, then, was: What helps managers consistently rise to the challenge of being transformational leaders?

To that end, the researchers looked to the family as a potential source of encouragement that enables managers to be more consistently transformational. To explore whether positive family experiences spur transformational leader behaviors, they drew on attachment theory, a theory born out of social psychology that suggests that, when people have positive experiences with other people who are intimate or close, those experiences help people feel comfortable tackling challenging tasks and taking appropriate risks to change their environment.

Expanding on this notion, the research team sought to explore how managers may benefit from positive experiences with their families and who benefits most from these experiences.

Across two studies, wherein the researchers surveyed managers and their subordinates multiple times per day for 15 working days, the team found that positive daily experiences with the family -- such as a spouse offering words of encouragement or family experiences that put the leader in a good mood -- helped leaders be more comfortable with navigating uncertainty and finding opportunities for change and impact.

In turn, this mindset helped managers be more transformational, both in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of their employees.

However, one of the most unique elements of the study focused on who was most affected by these family experiences. Specifically, as a function of their upbringing, some leaders are more distrustful of relationships -- “attachment avoidant” -- and benefit little from positive family experiences. In contrast, other leaders are overly dependent on relationships -- “attachment anxious” -- and, thus, benefit more from positive family experiences.

By explaining what helps managers be transformational -- including who is most affected by this -- McClean and colleagues also offer insights for managers and organizations. For instance, organizations may benefit from fostering attachment in the workplace.

“Indeed, while shying away from interrupting family time is crucial, there are additional steps organizations can take to create meaningful connection between supervisors and other people at work,” McClean says. “For example, managers may benefit from company efforts to foster mentoring and supportive relationships at work, such as by encouraging relationship-building exercises that can deepen close relationships between employees, as well as between managers and employees.”

Further, there may be value in having managers reflect on positive family experiences that happened in the past. This is because purposefully thinking about these experiences may help managers be more future-focused and transformational.

Finally, McClean and his co-authors caution companies against intruding on family time, as this could impair managers’ ability to lead effectively. Specifically, research has shown that when companies interrupt family time -- such as with emails, requiring employees to work on their phones after work hours -- this tends to generate family conflict; spouses often get frustrated with the company and employees when they work during family time. As a result, this makes it less possible for leaders to have positive family experiences, thus lessening their transformational behaviors at work.

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