Troubled at Home, Leaders Lash Out or Withdraw

Romantic and family conflict can trigger destructive leadership behaviour, but solutions are within reach
marital discord

The essentials

  • Organizational leaders are often seen as powerful figures who don’t need the support of wellness programs.
  • Domestic problems faced by leaders can prompt abusive or neglectful relationships with employees, which have a detrimental impact on organizational performance.
  • Widening the focus on mental health to include leaders can help them fill their “resource reservoirs” and help them better deal with challenges in their personal and work lives.

Despite an increasing focus on the importance of mental health in the workplace and the widespread rollout of wellness programs, we tend to think of organizational leaders as larger-than-life characters who rise above the commonplace concerns that bog down the rest of us.

But leaders are people too, says Angela Dionisi, an assistant professor of management at the Sprott School of Business and a PhD graduate of the Smith School of Business. And, when they encounter challenges at home, that stress can impede their ability to effectively interact with employees.

“Everybody can have struggles in their personal lives, and we can’t forget that leaders are just as vulnerable,” says Dionisi, an expert on workplace mistreatment and leadership.

Dionisi teamed up with frequent collaborator Julian Barling, Borden Chair of Leadership at the Smith School of Business, to explore the role of family and romantic partner conflict in destructive leadership.

“When we look at leaders, we tend to concentrate on how they impact the people they work with,” she says. “We really wanted to look at two different forms of destructive leadership — abusive supervision and passive leadership — and understand how leaders are impacted by factors outside the workplace.”

Conserving Emotional and Cognitive Resources

Their research is based on the well-tested Conservation of Resources theory. According to this theory, we all have a finite number of psychological characteristics (such as self-esteem), conditions (such as social support), and energies (such as time), that are susceptible to being depleted. These “resources”, Dionisi says, allow us to function in a range of environments but must be managed carefully; when we cope with stress, we draw on our “resource reservoirs.”

For leaders, as with the general population, resource reserves can be drained by stress and tension arising from family and romantic partner conflict. Simply put, when they expend time and energy on domestic problems, leaders may not have enough left in the resource “gas tank” to be effective at work.

To determine how this plays out, Dionisi and Barling surveyed 123 leader-follower pairs. They evaluated leaders’ familial demands and their resulting affective state (seen, for example, in depressive symptoms) and cognitive state (such as the level of distraction). The researchers also questioned leaders’ subordinates about their leadership quality.

Dionisi and Barling were looking for both abusive behaviour — such as verbal and non-verbal hostility — and passive leadership, which can be equally destructive. “There’s a myth that doing nothing causes nothing to happen,” says Dionisi, “but leader passivity can also have negative consequences.”

Why Leaders Lash Out or Go Into a Shell

They found that family demands can drain leaders emotionally or cognitively.

The former — resulting from, say, conflict and anger toward one’s spouse — can compromise a leader’s ability to engage in self-control at work and, in turn, spur leaders to lash out. This abusive behaviour could take the form of mocking employees for their ideas or putting down subordinates in front of others.

Cognitive depletion, which can happen when a leader, for example, ruminates on an argument she had at home, can lead to withdrawal, failure to reward or discipline employees, or an inability to provide mentorship. While less overtly toxic, Dionisi says, “this lack of leadership has been previously shown to increase the rates of bullying, safety incidents, and injuries in organizations, and can also foster decreases in employee wellbeing.”

When their resources are drained by what’s happening on the home front, depleted leaders may well go into a shell at work, trying to save what little energy they have left. As Dionisi and Barling write in their paper, “preoccupation with the demands and challenges one is facing at home may prevent leaders from even noticing the behaviours of followers that require praise, criticism or intervention.”

Matching Support to the Problem

Dionisi says that despite the fact that poor leadership behaviour may originate outside of the workplace, organizations still have a part to play. “Organizations have a responsibility to ensure that all employees are supported by wellness initiatives, even leaders,” he says. “While organizations tend to shy away from the private lives of their staff, our results suggest they can combat the problem of destructive leadership by offering programs that bolster the cognitive and emotional strengths of leaders. They could also expand employee assistance to include romantic and family relationships.”

Leaders can also personally build their resilience by engaging in healthy pursuits — walking in nature, meditating, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.

Dionisi says further research in this area could include a closer look at the positive impacts of one’s personal life on leadership. For instance, can family or romantic relationship satisfaction boost a leader’s performance a work?

“People identify with the larger story that’s coming out of this research,” says Dionisi, “and that’s encouraging.”

Leonard Simon

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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