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The Depleted Leader

It doesn’t take much psychological distress to throw leaders seriously off their game, yet they suffer in silence. Organizational supports can guide them back to solid ground
Sad leader

The essentials

To date, there has been little research into the psychological well-being of leaders and how everyday stress can affect their leadership. A study led by Queen’s School of Business doctoral students Alyson Byrne and Angela Dionisi, along with Borden Chair of Leadership Julian Barling, showed that leaders who suffer what is known as psychological resource depletion are less effective in their leadership roles and more destructive. Leaders experiencing symptoms of depression and who use alcohol in the workplace exhibited the lowest level of transformational leadership behaviour. Those who experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety scored highest in abusive supervision. The research was published in the journal Leadership Quarterly.

In this interview, researcher Angela Dionisi discusses the findings and the positive role that organizations can play in supporting leaders who are reluctant to admit their struggles.

Why leaders’ well-being has been ignored

Most leadership research has focused on the consequences of leadership and not as much on what makes for an effective leader. While there’s been research on stress and the psychological health and well-being of employees, researchers haven’t yet looked at the well-being of leaders. We’re seeing now, in Canadian society, public campaigns around mental health. But when it comes to people in positions of authority, there seems to be a fear among leaders that if they come forward and disclose their struggles, they may be seen as weak or ill-equipped for their leadership role. So they stay silent and, in doing so, perpetuate the idea that leaders’ psychological well-being can be taken for granted. 

Given the many issues leaders face, it’s safe to say that leadership is a demanding role. It takes psychological, emotional, and cognitive skills to be an effective leader. While it seems intuitive that a psychologically healthy leader would be a better leader, to this point, we haven’t had supporting empirical evidence.

Why it matters when a leader’s psychological gas tank runs low

We surveyed leaders and their followers. We had around 175 leaders comment on indicators of their own psychological resource depletion: their levels of anxiety, depression, and drinking behaviour at work — everyday levels, not clinical disorders or situations requiring medication or counseling. We then had their subordinates comment on their leadership behaviours. 

The main takeaway is that leaders’ psychological well-being matters to their leadership. More specifically, leaders who suffer psychological resource depletion are less effective in their leadership role and more destructive. We looked at two forms of leadership: transformational leadership and abusive supervision. These are not styles but different forms of behaviour. 

"Depleted leaders are . . . trying to conserve what little resources they have left" 

We found that leaders who experience anxiety or depression or engage in alcohol use at work tend to perform more poorly on transformational leadership (leadership behaviours that are ethical, inspirational, developmental, and relational) and exert more abusive supervision (verbal and non-verbal hostility). We found that some combinations make matters even worse. For example, leaders who experience symptoms of depression and engage in workplace alcohol use had the lowest levels of transformational leadership behaviour. Likewise, leaders experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety had the highest levels of abusive supervision. 

These findings can be explained by what’s known to researchers as conservation of resources theory. We all have a finite amount of resources like self-esteem, energy, or knowledge. Different life experiences, like anxiety, can deplete these resources. The problem is that you need resources to gain resources back. When you’re depleted, it is harder and harder to replenish what you’ve lost, and thus people will often take on defensive strategies (in this case disengaging from leadership or reacting in hostile ways) to cope. As a result, depleted leaders are less likely to want to expend the energy required to be a high quality leader, because they’re trying to conserve what little resources they have left. 

How organizations can support depleted leaders

One way for resources to be replenished is with social support. This suggests that organizations can psychologically replenish their leaders by acknowledging that leaders’ psychological well-being matters, and by providing them with the necessary resources wherever possible. This could take the form of tangible resources like time or leadership training and development. It could also be emotional support, counseling, or an employee assistance program — whatever it takes to help refill that psychological gas tank. 

Organizations also need to create safe spaces for their leaders in which they feel comfortable to disclose that they’re struggling and need help. Organizations can communicate to their leaders that they’re willing to partner with them and offer supports. 

Reaction to the findings

People are happy we’re addressing the elephant in the room. There is a growing awareness that leaders are not indestructible; they have their struggles and it’s time that we help them wherever we can. People are also surprised that low levels of anxiety, depression, and workplace drinking can affect leadership. It’s not necessarily clinically depressed or anxious leaders, or those who consume abnormal amounts of alcohol, but those who experience depletion at everyday levels whose leadership can be negatively affected.

Where leadership well-being research is headed

We’re pushing this question further. The first step is to look at other forms and sources of leaders’ resource depletion: leaders who are targeted with mistreatment and harassment, leaders suffering from sleep deprivation, how family demands may drain leaders or, in fact, fill them up. 

We’re also looking at how depletion affects leadership behaviours. For example, leaders who are mistreated may become angry, sad, or cognitively distracted, all of which could negatively affect their leadership behaviour and spread to other people in the workplace. When one person experiences an emotion, it can elicit that emotion in someone else. Is the anxiety experienced by a leader transferred to subordinates? We’re starting to look at these emotional contagions.

 

This research was led by Alyson Byrne and Angela Dionisi. The research team included Julian Barling, Amy Akers, Jennifer Robertson, Rebecca Lys, Jeffrey Wylie, and Kate Dupré.  — Interview by Alan Morantz

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

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