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April 18, 2017

Charisma-challenged? You can still be a good boss

You don’t need the charisma of Steve Jobs to be an effective boss, indicates new research led by Michigan State University business scholars.

In a series of five studies, the researchers found bosses who were supportive and set clear expectations – but weren’t necessarily transformational leaders with grand visions – were able to effectively motivate their employees.

The study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, is one of the first to examine how a leader’s regulatory focus, or mindset, affects his or her own behavior and, in turn, employees’ motivation.

The findings suggest bosses can modify their mindset to produce a certain outcome from workers, whether that’s innovation or a more conservative work focus aimed at meeting basic obligations and preventing errors, said Brent Scott, MSU professor of management and study co-author.

“Effective leadership may be based in part on leader’s ability to recognize when a particular mental state is needed in their employees and to adapt their own mental state and their behaviors to elicit that mindset,” Scott said. “Part of the story here is that you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to be an effective leader. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing.”

The research team, led by Russell Johnson, MSU associate professor of management, conducted field studies and experiments with hundreds of managers and employees from a variety of industries including professional services, manufacturing and government.

Bosses who had an innovative mindset (called promotion focus) were more likely to lead in a transformative way and thus elicit an innovative mindset among employees. Bosses with a more conservative mindset (called prevention focus) were more likely to “manage by exception,” which involves focusing almost exclusively on preventing mistakes, thus eliciting a prevention focus among workers.

“We found that the motivations of managers are contagious and ‘trickle down’ to their subordinates,” Johnson said. “Thus, if managers are unhappy with how their people are approaching work tasks, the managers might actually be the ones responsible for eliciting their motivation in the first place. Managers can modify their leadership behavior to trigger the appropriate motivation orientation in their employees to fit the situation.”

While the study identified some transformational leaders who elicited an innovative mindset among employees, Scott said it’s unrealistic to think that every boss can be – or necessarily wants to be – a transformational leader all of the time. Some work situations and environments may call for a more preventative approach.

A sweet spot for managing may be what’s called “contingent reward behavior,” which brings in both a promotion and prevention focus – emphasizing gains and providing both positive and negative reinforcement based on performance.

“The contingent approach is quid pro quo – if you do this, I’ll give you that,” Scott said. “It’s not sexy like transformational leadership, but it’s something that just about every manager can do because it doesn’t require you to ooze charisma.”