Although the University-led research found that workplace leadership did generally have a positive effect, this was limited and depended on the actions of the leaders, rather than of followers.
Principal researcher Dr Edward Cartwright, of the School of Economics, and researchers from the VU University Amsterdam and Osnabrück University studied workplace team behaviour with a particular focus on leadership by example.
The research found that in some groups, leaders who contributed a lot were able to succeed in inspiring high effort in followers, whereas in other groups where leaders made less effort to set a good example, work efficiency was no better than could be expected with no leader present.
Dr Cartwright said: ‘One of the surprising outcomes was the fact that leadership in itself did not increase average effort within a team. If leaders chose high effort, then this significantly increased the average effort of others. However, we found that leaders often did not set a good example. Indeed, many leaders set a bad example by choosing low effort.
‘We found that the reluctance of leaders to set a good example was based on the fact that it did not necessarily benefit them. From the leaders’ perspective, choosing low effort was the safe option.’
Their research also highlighted the value of incentives for team leaders to set a good example in the workplace. The findings suggest that incentives and rewards, such as bonuses, should be based on individual performance, rather than that of the team.
Dr Cartwright said: ‘If a team leader works hard and someone in the team lets them down, then they’ve lost on two counts. Faced with this possibility, they may take the easy option and not work hard in the first place. That’s why it’s important to reward leaders on the basis of their own performance.’
The study made use of what is known as a ‘weak-link game’. In this, 108 participants, split into small groups, chose a group leader, either randomly or selectively, and then undertook various exercises designed to measure efficiency of leadership in a work setting.
The research team also included Professor Mark van Vugt, of the VU University Amsterdam and a visiting professor at the University of Kent, and Joris Gillet, of Osnabrück University. The study can be viewed in the journal Economic Inquiry at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ecin.12003/abstract