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Smith Business Insight Podcast | Series 3 . Episode 1 Brave New Workplace


Smith Business Insight Podcast

A look behind the hero’s cape reveals the secrets guiding great leaders and the shortcomings of wannabes


A tsunami of studies has revealed so much about what makes for effective leadership, yet so much remains unknown. Our guest, Julian Barling, author of Brave New Workplace, brings us up to date on what the research says about transformational leadership, the power of small actions, the potential and limits of management development and the pall that abusive leaders cast over workers and their families. One of the world’s top organizational and leadership researchers, Dr. Barling is a Distinguished University Professor and Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business. He is joined in conversation by host Alan Morantz. 


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Alan Morantz: A Brave New Workplace. Hmm, that sounds just what we need right about now. I’m not talking about Huxley’s dystopian society described in his 1932 classic, Brave New World. No, I’m talking about a positive vision of the workplace that is productive, healthy, and safe, for everyone. One led by brave leaders willing to step away from the status quo. 

It’s a vision that Julian Barling sets out in his latest book, Brave New Workplace. And that’s what we’re serving up in this podcast series of the same name, brought to you by Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. 

I’m your host, Alan Morantz, senior editor for Smith Business Insight, and I had the pleasure of speaking with Julian Barling, one of the world’s top organizational and leadership researchers. We discussed key themes from his latest book and the fallout from some big disruptions in the workplace. That includes everything from the Covid pandemic to changing expectations of what work should offer employees. Our five-part podcast looks at what the evidence shows about steadfast leadership, safe workplaces, the value of autonomy, and the importance of meaning. Basically, the building blocks of work environments that we all wish we could experience. 

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1:31: Today on this first episode of Brave New Workplace, we’re looking at leadership. It’s the obvious place to start: the people in authority are most responsible for creating the conditions for a productive and healthy working environment. 

Quite a bit of what we know about leadership has been shaped by the research of Julian Barling. Born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Dr. Barling is a Distinguished University Professor and Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s Smith School of Business. His research over the course of four decades has focused on the nature and development of transformational leadership and employee well-being. Dr. Barling is author of well over 200 research articles and book chapters, with — get this — 45,000 citations to his credit. He is author most recently of The Science of Leadership, published in 2014, and Brave New Workplace, published in 2023. Dr. Barling is a Fellow with numerous academic bodies in North America and Europe, and an inspiration to a slew of the most inquisitive and impactful management researchers, all of whom began their research careers as his graduate students. 

Here’s part one of my conversation with Julian Barling.  

[Music playing] 

AM: So, Julian, you’ve mentioned evidence, and I know you’ve dedicated much of your scholarly career to studying transformational leadership. That’s definitely the most researched aspect of leadership. Transformational leadership, and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, it involves behaving ethically, being inspirational, focusing on the future and developing employees. Now, how do people who embody these qualities and behaviours make a difference to employees they lead and to their organization’s success? 

Julian Barling: So, you’re definitely correct in your description of the behaviours that these people get engaged in: behaving ethically, being inspirational and so forth. The question of course, is why does this make a difference to the people that they lead? Or perhaps more accurately, how does this make a difference? 

And I think that there’s a very, very large body of research that can be looked at to try and unravel this. And I would try and suggest that there are at least four ways in which transformational leadership has an effect. I think in, in one way, transformational leadership behaviours help people feel better about themselves. They feel better about their skills. They feel that theyre more skillful. They feel better about themselves in terms of their esteem and so forth. They just feel better about themselves. 

I think a second way is they feel better about their work. They feel that their work is important and meaningful and worth doing. I think a third way is that they help people treasure their relationships with their leaders. And taken together, I think when people feel better about themselves, when they feel that their work is important, when they treasure their relationships with their leaders, they’re far more willing to want to do amazing work for the organization. So, in a psychological sense, I think what these people, these transformational leaders, do is they help put people in a position where they will choose to do what needs to be done to make the organizations thrive. 

5:18: I think a fourth way is, and this is far less psychological, it’s more instrumental, is that they actively go out and create opportunities for their employees. They create employee opportunities in which their employees can thrive

Taken together, if we look at these four things, I think an important lesson is were never going to find that transformational leadership or any other form of leadership is going to have immediate effects. It takes a while for these behaviours being ethical, inspirational, and so forth to help people feel that their leaders treasure their relations with their leaders to help feel better about themselves. Once they do that, then they’re more likely to behave in different ways. 

So I think the lesson from all that is it’s going to take some time. These leadership behaviours have indirect effects. If I was to try and put this in just a word or two to encapsulate this in a simple way, I would resort to a description or a phrase used by Indra Nooyi, the former CEO and president of PepsiCo, who I think captures at best when she says that the challenge for leadership is to help others rise. And I think when leaders behave this way, they help others rise. 

6:46: AM: Yeah, I mean, it sounds heroic. I mean, just the words transformational leaders” sound heroic. But I’ve heard you say very often that it’s the little things leaders do, like a simple expression of gratitude that makes the deepest impact. So if that’s the case, why don’t we see people writing thank you notes and making similar expressions more often? 

JB: So I think it’s because of, partially because of the terms that you use. Not that you’re causing it, but I think that the terms that you use give us an idea. I think we make a huge mistake when we start to think that these are heroic leaders. They’re not. In fact, they’re the very opposite of heroic leaders. But when we think that what might be required in leadership is to be heroic leader, I think many humble people will say to themselves, that’s just not me. I’m not that. I can’t do it. Instead of realizing that actually being humble is going to be exactly what is required. So, I like to say that we are not, it’s not transformational leadership. It’s not transformational sainthood. It’s everyday behaviours that are going to make a difference in the workplace. 

When I deal with executives in the exec development programs that we run, I love to ask them why it is that, they tend to know what the best of leadership is. And yet surveys that we do in our research tend to show that employees tell us those are the behaviours they just don’t see. And then you ask leaders, why doesn’t it happen? And you get similar answers across groups, across time. The most predominant is that they just don’t feel they have the time to do — here’s a term we frequently hear — I just don’t have the time to do all that. And what are they thinking? They’re thinking about, you know, heroic leadership that involves doing the right thing all the time with all your people. 

I think what we’ve learned is that actually the best of leadership is not about being inspirational all the time with all your people. The best of leadership is about being inspirational at the right time with the right person. And it may involve a minute. The best of leadership is about moments. And I think when we can help people move from the notion that what’s required is a heroic form of leadership to a moment ,I think people start to realize that, Hey, I can do that.

There’s some wonderful research that shows that people in general overestimate just how much it might take to influence people. They overestimate how uncomfortable people will feel if they display small forms of gratitude. They feel that doing so will make the recipients feel uncomfortable, and they, at the same time, underestimate the benefits of those small signs of appreciation. Yet the same studies tend to show that if you can help them appreciate that it is the small forms of gratitude that people want, they’re far more likely to engage in them. So I think we need to change our mental model of what is leadership and what is the best of leadership. And the best of leadership is not about heroic leadership. I think the best of leadership is what are the smallest things you can do. 

10:38: AM: I was surprised at how rarely personality showed up in your book. You know, your personality showed up as a writer, but the importance of personality to leadership. So where does the personality of leaders and followers fit into this conversation? And, most important before you answer, is there still hope for me as a leader, even though my personality tests aren’t very promising

JB: So two immediate responses. So you certainly caught me there. Yes, there is perhaps a lot less emphasis on personality, and it is a deliberate choice based on a particular interpretation of what the best of leadership really is. And if you’re concerned that your personality test results are not what you might have wanted them to be, great news for you. 

So it’s not that personality is unimportant. I think that it’s really that, over the past, perhaps there’s been a tendency to overemphasize its importance. There is certainly research, there is a lot of research on personality and leadership, and I think it’s led to a lot of misunderstandings, stereotypes about what is required for the best of leadership. You can almost imagine the cartoons in the past: Introverts need not apply, only extroverts need to apply and so forth. 

So it’s not that personality is unimportant, but I just think that leadership behaviours are far more important and other external forces that act on leadership and so forth are so much more important. When personality does creep in, and maybe I’m showing my bias by using the term creep in, I think the organizations tend to go down the road of over-emphasizing leadership in many processes. It starts with leadership selection. I think there’s the notion of maybe we can solve all the ethical problems simply through honesty and integrity tests. I think the problem is compounded when we use unreliable and invalid tests such as the MBTI, the Myers Briggs. If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and the MBTI would disappear from all organizations. Instead, what we’re talking about is what might well be a billion dollar a year industry that I think has led many organizations astray. 

The personality factor that tends to get emphasized the most is extroversion. And yet some wonderful research by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino show that there are situations in which extroversion can have less powerful effects than introversion. And you mentioned followers, and what about follower’s personality? And it depends on follower’s personality. It may not be advisable to put extroverted leaders together with proactive followers. The result may be conflict. In their research, what they actually show is that extroverted followers together with less proactive followers may be a better combination. And introverted leaders with more proactive followers may be a bit of combination. 

So another thing we learned here is we’ve over-emphasized the role of leaders and discarded any role for followers. Leadership is important, but leadership without followership is going nowhere. 

At last, I would just really want to make a comment about introversion. And there’s no better place to go and learn about introversion than Susan Cain’s wonderful book called Quiet. Susan Cain explains that not only is introversion present in leaders, it can be a really valued aspect of who they are. And I think organizations are changing in this respect and beginning to appreciate introversion. 

Adam Grant actually shows in a really intriguing study that what might be best is ambiversion. And what is ambiversion? It’s a combination of extroversion and introversion that uses extroversion in those situations when it’s most appropriate, and that reflects introversion when it’s most appropriate. 

So yes, personality is important. Yes, the research shows that there is a role for personality, but I think that we’ve done a disservice to leaders by over-emphasizing the role of personality. Leaders can succeed no matter what their personality characteristics. 

15:44: AM: Well, that’s promising. I’ve read hundreds of journal articles on leadership and teams and you can count on them to recommend training and development as the solution to whatever ails. You’ve led a lot of leadership development programs. I don’t know how many, and I don’t know if you’ve counted, but I’m wondering when they’re well done, what can they really change, and what are their limits? 

JB: There is a tremendous amount of research on leadership development. Just to go back one step though, in these leadership programs that you speak about, which are leadership development exercises, perhaps the most frequent question that you get is whether leadership is born or made. And it’s an incredibly important question. It’s an intriguing question, but it’s really important because when people believe that it’s something that’s born, leadership development is going to be less likely to work because people don’t believe that they can make changes. They have what might be less than a growth mindset when it comes to leadership development. 

So the research on leadership development is really important because it has established that we can indeed develop leaders. So Christina Lacerenza, I think, has conducted the most important research. Her research involved an analysis of 335 samples or leadership exercises, developments, and her conclusion is so important that I can cite it off by heart. Leadership training, she tells us, is substantially more effective than previously thought. It’s not even just more effective, but substantially more effective than previously thought. 

And in terms of some really important aspects, what can we expect from leadership development? We know it changes the participants attitudes. We know that they can learn new knowledge about what are effective leadership behaviours. We know that when they learn these new behaviours and so forth, they can take them back to their workplaces and they can use that knowledge. 

A really critical aspect that’s going to become more and more important based on her research is that, Christina Lacerenza and her coworkers identify conditions under which leadership development is going to be more effective. So it’s more effective when it’s done on the basis of a needs analysis. So particular people need particular forms of leadership, and we match them with their kind of training. 

We know it’s more effective when it’s accompanied with feedback. We know it’s more effective when we use different delivery mechanisms. So it’s not just a lecture or it’s not just, you know, learning on the internet, it’s role playing, it’s feedback and so forth. We know it’s more effective when it’s conducted onsite, possibly because it makes the transfer of knowledge that much easier. 

But most importantly, and the biggest challenge from her research moving forward, is that their research shows that it is more effective when it’s conducted face-to-face. Well, in the last two and a half or three years, of course, what we’ve seen is a massive move towards remote forms of leadership development. And I think what organizations have learned is that you can do it via the internet. You can do this remote form of leadership development, and it’s certainly cheaper. But what are we sacrificing? What are we losing in the face of all of this? And her research, based on an incredibly large number of leadership development exercises, suggests that we may be moving to a situation where we are going to find that our training is more cost effective but less effective. So we can move more people through leadership training, but maybe they’re learning less whilst they’re in training. And I think this is a major challenge for organizations moving forward and leadership development. 

20:26: AM: Your latest book is about how to create productive, healthy and safe workplaces. How do we create or support productive, healthy and safe leaders? 

JB: I think that’s a great question that is confronting organizations. And everything that I’ve learned over the last several decades is that we need to do a much better job on leadership development. Together with a close colleague and friend, Kevin Kelloway, we wrote a paper more than a decade ago where our suggestion was that offering leadership development may be one of the most important things we could do just to enhance employee wellbeing. That if we could up the quality of leadership, then that may be the singular preventive thing we could do to help employees. Expectations are really high on leaders. Demands are really high on leaders. Yet I think it is very safe to say that most organizations put people in positions of leadership, in positions of responsibility, with very little training. 

It’s impossible to give an exact estimate, but it’s a question I ask I think virtually every single group I work with. The question is, how many of you, when you were put in your first significant position of leadership, received training before you went into that position. And whether it’s in Canada or the United States, it makes no difference. The answer is virtually nobody. It seems as if we put people in positions of leadership and only sometime later offer them leadership training. I think that that increases the demands on them. Ironically, we would never do that with any other responsible role in the organization. Can’t imagine us doing that with the chief financial officer. You know, take somebody who has no skill in the position, promote them and then send them on financial literacy training later. 

I think the reason we do it is that we think that everybody has an implicit view of what is the best of leadership. And indeed, research shows that people do have a view in their head about what leadership is really all about. The trouble is some people are wrong. The trouble is that some people think that the way you do this is you micromanage. The way you do this is think about the notion of a boss that you become bossy and so forth. So I think that we could dispel those problems, if we did a much better job on leadership development upfront. 

One of the things we’ve learned is there is one organization that seems to do it in the way that we would want. And when we ask people which organization it is, people usually don’t get it correct. I think it’s the military. In the military, you don’t become a major unless you’ve gone through the appropriate leadership training beforehand. And that’s true for most high-functioning militaries in the world. 

So this is really important because supporting leaders is what I like to call a triple-edged sword. On the one hand, and in this case we’re going have three hands, but on the one hand becoming a leader and being a leader can be emotionally exhilarating, but at the same time doing it can also be emotionally exhausting. And when it is emotionally exhausting, what we know is that leaders are often reluctant to look for help elsewhere because they’re afraid of the stigma of being weak. We expect our leaders to be strong and healthy, as a result of which many leaders fear that there would be a penalty for seeking help elsewhere. 

So organizations I think could really do a lot better for themselves and for their leaders by offering the development beforehand and the support all the way through. I think the pandemic has added to that. The pandemic required a lot more of leaders. We see a lot about burnout amongst employees. We’re concerned about burnout and call it quiet quitting and so forth. But we don’t see the same concern being leveled about the leaders of people, but leaders of people who are burnt out and so forth when they’re burnt out. 

25:14: AM: I’m struck by the wide circle of influence that abusive leaders have. Their impact is felt not only by the victim but by bystanders and the victim’s family. So what do we know about these effects? 

JB: I think what we’ve learned is the effects are far more widespread than we initially realized. And I think that it would be wonderful if leaders could appreciate the breadth of their influence. 

What we know is that employees watch with great interest to see how their peers and coworkers are treated and take note. They use this information to try and assess how they might be treated in the same or similar situations. Whether they’re correct or not, they may actually be treated differently, but if they watched their fellow employees being treated unfairly or abusively it’s almost as if in their heads they carry around the notion of “there but for the grace of God go I.” And research suggests that they are as strongly affected and as adversely affected as the direct targets themselves. 

So when we try and appreciate the influence of abusive leaders, what we are learning is that the effect is not just on the single person. The effect can be on the entire group. We also know from decades of research that it affects employees families as well. People take their bad days home with them, so in both emotionally and in terms of their ability to concentrate and so forth. It affects their parenting, it affects their spousal relationships. We know that it even affects their sleep. 

There’s some intriguing recent research, certainly one study that I read, that shows that it can even affect the abusive leaders themselves. There’s a recent study that shows that being abusive does not necessarily mean that leaders intentionally mean to be abusive. And in some situations, leaders may retrospectively look at their behaviours and wish they hadn’t behaved that way. And in this one study, they could show that people would ruminate, ruminate so much that it would disturb their sleep, keep them awake at night, quite literally for up to two weeks after an abusive incident. So the effects are so widespread it affects not just the employees, it can affect their families and in some cases it even affects leaders themselves. 

I think what we also need to start to understand is whether we get similar effects from good leadership as well. If leaders engage in good leadership, do they leave the situation feeling proud? How might that affect their future behaviours? I think that could be a really interesting route to track down. 

28:22: AM: I’m curious, Julian, do you find yourself applying what you learned from your research to how you supervise your many PhD students? 

JB: Absolutely, in different ways. I think that getting feedback from our students helps me when I think about the best of leadership

A little anecdote. One of the functions of supervising grad students is you give feedback on these long documents. And I think most of us use tracking, and sometimes the feedback is even, if delivered in a non-harsh manner, it’s not necessarily what they want. And years ago, I gave feedback to a student who came back and said to me, you know, a little smiley face dotted throughout would really help. And was like, wow. I talk about how small things make a big difference. And that was a lesson about how small things make a difference. 

This shows you how far back this goes to the days where students would give you a document to read, and it was on a piece of paper, you know, I’ve got a long document to read. And the student, a grad student gave it to me and as she was leaving my office, she said to me, Be careful. My entire ego is wrapped up in that document. And you come to appreciate that there are people involved in all of this. 

And to go back to the question or the challenge I mentioned earlier, how do we do this and help people rise? How do we do this and help people want to do an even better document the next time? So it’s listening to them, listening to their feedback. It’s looking around and watching other supervisors. It’s watching other supervisors who do it so well. You’re in a building where there may be 60 other similar supervisor-student relationships, and people can do it so well in so many different ways. There are so many opportunities to learn. So yes, I think that just supervising students has taught me so much. 

AM: You better be careful. You may get a lot more applications for your PhD stream after this. Julian, thanks really very much for joining us today. 

JB: Thank you very much. 

[Music playing] 

AM: That’s our episode for today. For more on Julian Barling’s vision of productive, healthy and safe workplaces, pick up a copy of his book, Brave New Workplace, from your favourite bookseller. Brave New Workplace is published by Oxford University Press

Thank you to podcast producer Meredith Dault and to Bill Cassidy for editing support. And finally, for practical evidence-based insights on the organizational world and business and finance in general, check out Smith Business Insight at