Dozens of studies show strong positive correlations between transformational leadership and how employees react to organizational change. Leadership scholar Bernard Bass, known as a pioneer and leading thinker on this leadership style, wrote in Leadership: Good, better, best that such leaders use “…charisma, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation to inspire employees to make extraordinary efforts.”
At its core, transformational leadership is about genuinely caring for the well-being of employees and ensuring that they see (and feel a sense of reward around) how their work is tied to the broader organizational mission.
Unfortunately, those dozens of peer-reviewed articles are scattered throughout a range of journals. And only a few build on or even acknowledge each other.
Well, in May 2020, management researchers Jian Peng (Guangzhou University), Mingze Li (Wuhan University of Technology), and Yuying Lin (Tsinghua University) published the results of their remarkable meta-analysis in an article titled Transformational Leadership and Employees’ Reactions to Organizational Change: Evidence From a Meta-Analysis (The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science).
In their exhaustive exploration of 30 empirical studies that included 12,240 participants, they found transformational leadership had:
- a positive relationship with commitment to change, openness to change, and readiness for change;
- a negative correlation with resistance to change and cynicism about change; and,
- a nonsignificant correlation with support for change.
Lead author Dr. Jian Peng agreed to answer a few questions, so let’s jump in.
CC: Dr. Peng, thank you for taking time out for us here. This study was clearly needed in the field and is an important contribution to the body of change management research. What was your team’s driving motivator to explore this topic? What surprised you? What was your greatest challenge?
JP: Thank you for your invitation. I am pleased to share my findings with a broad swath of readers. I began my exploration of the facilitators of organizational change when I was a Ph.D. candidate. As we all know, organizational change is crucial for the survival of organizations in the long term. This fact/notion motivates my co-authors and me to think about what matters for a successful change. Given my interest in psychology literature, I prefer to focus on the micro-foundation of organizational change, i.e., employees’ reactions to organizational change.
Indeed, employees’ reactions to organizational change serve as a basis for successful change. When we review the works on employees’ reaction to organizational change, we found transformational leadership was widely discussed but the results were quite mixed. This theoretical gap further strengthened my motivations to conduct a meta-analysis on the relationship between transformational leadership and employees’ reactions to organizational change.
Although most people recognize the relevance of reactions to organizational change, it is surprising that this topic received less attention from scholars than other topics such as performance, well-being, and job attitude. This reality rendered a great challenge for us to collect a sufficient sample of peer-reviewed papers and to reconcile the mixed findings. Specifically, the sample size of our meta-analysis is small; some findings regarding the moderating effect may not be sufficient to make an accurate conclusion.
CC: What would you say are the key takeaways for change management practitioners who may not have the time to explore the many insights of your meta-analysis? How do you recommend they begin to incorporate these findings into their day-to-day work managing change?
JP: The key recommendation for practitioners is that leaders should bear the responsibility to communicate with their employees and persuade them to embrace change before the start or implementation of the organizational change. Leaders or managers can take several measures to shape employees’ attitudes towards organizational change.
First, change leaders should convey an exciting vision to their employees, making them feel optimistic about the consequences of organizational change. Second, rather than exploiting employees, leaders should let employees know that they care for their well-being. Leaders can show their considerations by providing training opportunities, recognizing employees’ contributions, and listening to employees’ work-related or emotional complaints. Last but not least, leaders should behave in an ethical, just, and charismatic way, thereby setting an ideal role model in the process of organizational change.
CC: Your paper rightly points out how the organizational change literature has focused far more on the macro (outcomes, for example) than the micro (employee reactions). Kurt Lewin focused extensively on employees, and the field of organizational development has been criticized for focusing too much on the micro. Why do you believe the literature is swayed toward the macro? Do you see momentum building towards the micro? If so, why?
JP: Organizational change is quite a complex process or phenomenon. The macro and micro-foundations of organizational change are equally important. However, the focus on organizational change, to a large extent, stems from the strategic management literature which dominantly discusses firm-level or external environmental factors. In the field of behavioral or industrial psychology science, which stresses the importance of micro-factors in organizations, there are only a few scholars interested in organizational change. I do not intend to make the macro perspective and micro perspective compete against each other. Instead, I encourage scholars and practitioners to discuss the predictors of organizational change in a balanced view.
CC: The classic work from Lynne Herscovitch and John P. Meyer, Commitment to organizational change: Extension of a three-component model, serves as a kind of frame for how your analysis highlights the links between transformational leadership and the psychological connection employees feel in regards to the change initiative. Can you speak both to what your research found regarding this link and how today’s change leaders can work to integrate these findings?
JP: Maybe we are most familiar with a commitment to change, compared with the other five dependent variables in my paper. The work on employees’ commitment to organizational change originates from organizational commitment theory which identified three types of commitment: affective, normative, and continuance commitment.
In our paper, we integrated these three dimensions into a higher-order construct (i.e., commitment). The findings showed transformational leadership is positively related to employees’ commitment to change, and such a relationship is stronger in studies conducted in Eastern (vs. Western) countries. Our findings showed that leading in a transformational way gains not only employees’ organizational commitment and supervisor commitment but also the commitment to organizational change.
So if your employees have a low level of commitment, please change them using transformational leadership such as transforming employees’ self-interest into self-realization and leading them to show more concern for organizational success.
CC: There are six dependent variables in this study:
- Commitment to change
- Openness to change
- Readiness to change
- Support for change
- Resistance to change
- Cynicism about change
Can you describe the process that led to you deciding upon these? What key points and findings should aspiring transformational leaders know?
JP: As a meta-analysis, we collected a large number of peer-reviewed papers. We found there are quite a lot of constructs that have been used to describe employees’ reactions to organizational change. However, only those constructs (variables) whose relationship with transformational leadership were explored by at least three empirical studies were included. Based on this criterion, six dependent variables were reported in this study. Thus, our selection of dependent variables is conducted in an empirical view. Further, these six dependent variables are widely accepted constructs with clear definitions and validated measures in organizational change literature.
CC: From a management researcher’s point of view, what’s next? What type of studies would improve our understanding around leadership styles and employee reactions to change?
JP: It is a promising research direction to explore how leadership style shapes collective attitude towards organizational change. Focusing on changing an individual’s attitude alone may not achieve the degree of organizational change required for a successful transformation. As such, it is important to explore how leaders can motivate all the work teams and departments within the organization to embrace and participate in organizational change.
CC: Lastly, what’s next from you? And what change management developments are you excited to follow in the next few years?
JP: I plan to explore a specific type (rather than a broad term) of organizational change. Particularly, I am interested in approaches that can help a traditional organization transform into a sustainable organization. With the development of artificial intelligence, I wonder whether organizations could develop an AI machine (playing the role of a virtual leader) to guide employees on embracing green-specific organizational change, what to do to contribute to a sustainable organization, and potentially monitor employees’ daily workplace behaviors.
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