Transformational Leadership: Influencing Followers to Find Meaning at Work

December 4, 2019 in
By Jessica Dzieweczynski

The theme for this month’s blogs is leadership and influence, exploring the truism ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ In order to truly change the world for the better, influence and leadership go a long way and both of these concepts are essential to the theory behind transformational leadership. In fact, the term “influence” is literally one of the defining characteristics of transformational leadership. But how much influence do transformational leaders really have on their employees? And how do transformational leaders influence their employees? Research can shed light on both questions.

First let’s start with what a transformational leader is. Transformational leaders are characterized by four main traits; the “Four I’s” of transformational leadership include:[1]

  1. Idealized Influence – transformational leaders serve as a role model for their employees; employees look up to these leaders and tend to see them as charismatic
  2. Inspirational Motivation – transformational leaders motivate and inspire their employees; they help employees see the meaning in their work and connect it to a larger vision and mission
  3. Individualized Consideration – transformational leaders get to know their employees and what drives them; they use this information to support them in their career growth and development
  4. Intellectual Stimulation – transformational leaders empower employees by soliciting their input, encouraging them to innovate and problem solve, and challenging them to give their best to the job

So, how do transformational leaders influence their employees to perform above and beyond? I was part of a research team that looked into this. [2] Before diving into the results of the study, I’d like to share one of the statistics that I found quite surprising in the research, which is the relationship between objective job characteristics (i.e., how much variety, autonomy and feedback are inherent in a job based on an objective rating taxonomy) and subjective job characteristics (i.e., how an employee perceives their job on these same characteristics). Research consistently demonstrates that the relationship between objective job characteristics and how someone perceives their job is surprisingly low; in this particular study the correlation was r = .19. This means that how someone perceives their job is influenced by a lot more than just what the job “actually” entails – things like individual personality traits, coworkers, and leadership also influence how employees view their job. This opens the door for a transformational leader to shape and have a significant influence on how employees view their job.

Indeed, our research found that one of the ways that transformational leaders influence their employees is by affecting how they perceive their jobs. Specifically, leaders influence how their employees view their jobs in terms of the significance, meaningfulness, and importance of their work. In other words, two individuals can have the exact same job and perform the exact same tasks, but an individual with a transformational leader is more likely to view that job as meaningful. This is the case even with routine and structured jobs – a transformational leader can help employees see the meaning and value of even the most basic of tasks. Viewing the job as more meaningful also translated into positive outcomes for the organization: employees that perceived their job as more meaningful engaged in more “citizenship” behaviors on the job, such as helping coworkers and doing things to support the overall good of the organization.

In sum, this study found that transformational leaders influenced their employees to view their jobs as more meaningful, which in turn influenced those employees to act as better corporate citizens. If you are in any kind of leadership role – whether you are a project manager leading one other person or a senior executive overseeing dozens – make sure you are communicating your vision and helping employees connect what they are doing with the larger goals and mission of the effort. Don’t think of yourself as particularly transformative or charismatic? Don’t sell yourself short! Research also suggests that transformational leadership behaviors can be learned.[3] Try developing a personal leadership action plan and setting one or two specific goals related to your own transformational leadership behaviors – for example, seeking new ideas from your employees on a routine basis or setting regular communication points to connect your employees’ work to the larger objectives and mission. Your efforts are likely to have a positive influence on your employees, and perhaps even the organization as a whole.

[1] Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.

[2] Purvanova, R. K., Bono, J. E., & Dzieweczynski, J. (2006). Transformational leadership, job characteristics, and organizational citizenship performance. Human Performance, 19, 1-22.

[3] Barling, J., Weber, T., & Kelloway, E.K. (1996). Effects of transformational leadership training on attitudinal and financial outcomes: A field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 827-832.