Chalkboard that reads "leadership."

Lead on: How the mantel of leadership impacts performance

An ASU management and entrepreneurship professor's research paper investigates how informal leadership impacts identity, stress, and job performance.

Joe Bardin

Are leaders born or made? And if they’re made, who makes them? Traditional academic studies have operated under the assumption that “formally named leaders are the most important leaders,” says Ned Wellman, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship.

Yet, as more business is conducted outside traditional office spaces and structures, it makes sense to take a closer look at informal leadership, which seems more critical to business success than ever.

That’s why Wellman teamed up with a former W. P. Carey PhD student, Amy L. Bartels, to explore how people identify leaders among their peers. This work was based on Bartels’ PhD thesis and has since been published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in a paper titled, “Is It Just Me or Am I the People’s Choice? The Stress and Performance Implications of (In)Congruence Between Self- and Other-Identification as a Leader or Follower.”

Stress is in the eye of the beholder

The work was based on the stress appraisal theory, which finds that how employees view a particular stressor at work determines how they respond to it. If the person sees a specific source of stress as a challenge, this will most likely improve their performance because they will seek to rise to meet that challenge. If, on the other hand, the person views workplace stress as a hindrance, meaning an obstacle that offers them no real benefit, they will be discouraged and more likely to lower their performance in response.

What about the stress of a mismatched leadership identity? How do people respond when their own self-perceived status of being or not being a leader is seen differently by their co-workers? “Sometimes the granting or claiming of leadership isn’t so smooth,” says Wellman. “What happens then?”

In the daily dynamics of work, leadership granted or denied can be a source of stress. After all, leaders are expected to take the initiative and help make others better. But do they take this as a challenge or a hindrance?

This paper found that granting leadership to employees is a significant performance enhancer. Even for people who didn’t perceive themselves as leaders, when others granted them leadership status, they took it as a challenge to be better at their work.

Leadership isn’t for everyone, or is it?

We’re used to thinking of leadership as exclusive. According to traditional perspectives, just a few can aspire to be leaders. An abundance of leaders is often viewed as an obstacle to productivity, as illustrated in the phrase “too many chefs in the kitchen.”

However, this study proposes a different view of leadership in business. It suggests that many of us have leadership potential just waiting to be recognized, if not by us, then by others. Rather than obstructing performance, more leaders essentially mean more people performing at their best. So not only are there not too many chefs in the corporate kitchen, but the more leaders, the better.

“The mechanism is motivational,” Wellman says. “Some people don’t even think of themselves as leaders until someone tells them.”

Unfortunately, leadership is often overlooked in the workplace. A person can be a leader but not be perceived as a leader. This happens more for women because of the different forms of leadership they display."

According to this paper's findings, individuals who thought they were leaders but were not seen that way by others did not take it well. They showed a decline in performance when they weren’t recognized. This suggests that the price of being overly selective when it comes to acknowledging leadership can be quite high, not just when it comes to a person’s self-worth but also to the overall productivity of the group they work in.

It also seems to call into question the entire concept of “tough love” when it comes to acknowledging the importance of others. If overlooking people who already see themselves as leaders lowers their performance, why not be more generous with granting leadership? Leaders who may want to defend the exclusivity of their status as leaders by not conferring the mantle on more of their co-workers may be hurting their standing by lowering their team’s performance.

This is especially true in today’s work environment. “Because we work less in the office,” Wellman says, “research shows that shared leadership is more important. One person can’t help or supervise everyone. Virtual work relies more on shared leadership.”

Where will all the leadership needed in today’s decentralized workplace come from? Perhaps these leaders have been there all along, but they are dormant because they haven’t been recognized or needed.

Shades of gray

The study clearly shows that people’s performance is impacted by whether they are viewed as leaders. What is unclear is whether we all fall into one or the other of these two categories — leader or follower.

In real life, it’s more nuanced than that. There are shades of gray when it comes to being a leader or follower.

Ned Wellman, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship

To explore the fluidity of leadership perception and how it can ebb and flow in organizations, Bartels also analyzed the Arizona State football team. Over the course of a season, she tracked how teammates were perceived as leaders or not from week to week. Publishing those findings is one of the next steps that will follow from here.

In a future paper, Bartels and Wellman plan to explore findings about what people do when they are granted leadership. Since they see it as a challenge rather than a hindrance, how do they prepare to meet it?

What isn’t a gray area is that conferring leadership on people is usually a positive performance driver. Of course, if it’s an absolute fiction and the person is not deserving, then calling them a leader won’t make them better at their job. But, if there are grounds for it, then this study suggests there’s no reason to hold back that acknowledgment. It’s not only a boost for the employee; it’s a good management practice.

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