'Transformational leadership' curbs bad attitudes towards change

January 09, 2014

Toronto - It's no surprise that a cynical attitude towards the prospect of change makes change harder to implement.

But it's important to understand that cynicism happens at an Individual and workplace-wide level and both must be addressed to get employee buy-in for change initiatives. What's more, leaders who can inspire their employees and make them feel confident in their work have the best chance of limiting the development of such disabling attitudes, says a study from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"Having a leader who can do those things makes people want to change," says Katherine DeCelles, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School. She led the study with Paul Tesluk of the University of Buffalo and Faye Taxman at Virginia's George Mason University.

Their conclusions were based on information collected through surveys with nearly 700 correctional officers at 14 different prisons in one mid-Atlantic U.S. state. Information on employee insubordination was also gathered.

Not only did researchers confirm that employee cynicism contributed to lower levels of commitment towards change, they also found that a more cynical climate in the workplace led to lower levels of individual commitment towards change, regardless of officers' personal attitudes. A poor climate could bolster individuals' negative attitudes too.

"The cynicism starts to become more of a norm, so it becomes much more entrenched," said Prof. DeCelles.

Cynicism was reduced, however, in workplaces with "transformational" leaders -- people who helped employees see themselves as valuable and competent, and who successfully communicated their ideas about why change was necessary and desirable for everybody.

Prisons are rarely used as subjects for organizational behaviour research, said Prof. DeCelles, who initiated the study after participating in a previous project about rehabilitation activities in U.S. correctional facilities.

However, their rigid, hierarchical structure made prisons ideal for studying the effects of cynicism towards change, she said. With nearly half a million employees, a 38% turnover rate, and two million inmates, the prison system also deserves to be studied because of the resources dedicated to it and the important role it plays in society.

"It really is a significant organization on so many different dimensions and yet we know very little about how it functions," said Prof. DeCelles.

The paper was published in a recent issue of Organization Science.
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For the latest thinking on business, management and economics from the Rotman School of Management, visit http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/FacultyAndResearch/NewThinking.aspx.

The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is redesigning business education for the 21st century with a curriculum based on Integrative Thinking. Located in the world's most diverse city, the Rotman School fosters a new way to think that enables the design of creative business solutions. The School is currently raising $200 million to ensure Canada has the world-class business school it deserves. For more information, visit http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca.

For more information:

Ken McGuffin
Manager, Media Relations
Rotman School of Management
University of Toronto
Voice 416.946.3818
E-mail mcguffin@rotman.utoronto.ca
Follow Rotman on Twitter @rotmanschool
Watch Rotman on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/rotmanschool

University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

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