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How Passive Leaders Undermine Employee Well-Being

The unwillingness to act decisively is hardly benign. New research suggests passive leaders confuse and wear down employees

The essentials

  • Passive leaders have a negative impact on how employees perceive their roles and are responsible for role conflict, ambiguity, and overload.
  • Their inability to reward good work and correct bad work causes higher levels of employee stress due to psychological work fatigue.
  • The negative consequences of passive leadership might be prevented through leadership development programs.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about red-faced autocratic leaders who leave employees quaking at their desks. And we’ve all learned about the traits a leader should embody — decisiveness, fairness, the ability to inspire — through self-help books or management training programs.

But what about the passive boss who is little more than a warm body in a chair, who neither rewards the high performer nor reprimands the office bully? It turns out he or she can be just a toxic as an abusive boss, says Julian Barling, who holds the Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business.

“There have only been a handful of studies on passive leadership,” says Barling. “For the longest time, we laboured under this misapprehension that as long as we just do nothing, nothing bad can happen. And it turns out that’s definitely not the case.”

From Passivity to Bullying

The little research that has been done has shown that when leaders fail to fulfil the roles to which they have been assigned, employees are confused and conflicted about their own roles. Studies even shown that passive leadership leads to more workplace bullying and safety incidents.

Barling and colleague Michael Frone from the State University of New York at Buffalo looked deeper to study the potential negative effects of passive leadership on employees. They define passive leaders as those who avoid or delay taking necessary actions when problems arise. This might be seen in managers who refrain from rewarding and punishing employees when they should.

“If you’re an employee who has done something really well and no one says ‘good work’, that’s telling you you’re not that important and your work is not important,” says Barling. Similarly, if a leader fails to call you out on a major mistake or bad work habits, “that tells you no one cares about performance.”

"For the longest time, we laboured under this misapprehension that as long as we just do nothing, nothing bad can happen. It turns out that’s definitely not the case"

In their study, Barling and Frone looked at the responses of almost 2,500 workers in the U.S. who participated in the National Survey of Work Stress and Health, conducted by Frone between 2008 and 2011. Role overload, role conflict, role ambiguity, psychological work fatigue (mental and emotional), mental health, and overall work attitude were examined in the presence of passive leadership. Their results were published in the journal Stress and Health.

The researchers discovered that passive leadership was positively related to role overload, role conflict, and role ambiguity, and that each one of these stressors was positively and independently related to mental work fatigue. They also found that when employees were psychologically worn out from work, their mental health was more likely to be negatively affected, as was their overall work attitudes.

Importance of Leadership Development

Why do leaders engage in this type of behaviour? Barling suggests that one possibility is they are simply overloaded with work, at a time when workplaces are doing more with fewer resources and staff members. “There’s so much to do — they’re so distracted — that who, in a sense, has the time to go over and tell somebody they just did a good job?”

But executives need to make time. Barling says the findings need to be reflected in leadership training which, until now, has largely focused on extremes — bad leadership and good leadership. Instead, he believes management and leadership development programs should be more nuanced.

“What this study tells us is we need to draw people’s attention to the nature of negative leadership,” says Barling. His endgame is a generation of new leaders who will be cognizant of the consequence from failing to act. “We’re pretty sure we can make a difference through leadership education.”

Anna Sharratt

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Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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