Research Brief: How Green Leaders at Work Leave Their Mark

When transformational leaders practise pro-environmental behaviour, employees take the message to heart
Research Brief: How Green Leaders at Work Leave Their Mark

What did the study look at? 

Leaders have been shown to influence employee attitudes and a host of organizational outcomes. In this study, researchers tested whether or not a leader’s pro-environmental behaviour in the workplace and style of leadership would influence employees’ own environmental behaviour and passion for sustainability. The researchers focus on “transformational” leaders, those who act as positive role models, are inspiring, encourage others to be inquisitive and develop solutions, and show empathy for an employee’s well-being and development. When their transformational leadership is focused on environmental awareness, does it rub off on their employees?

How was the study designed?

Researchers asked 139 pairs of leaders and their subordinates to complete a survey. Leaders were asked to provide information on the approach they take to environmentally-focused leadership and to describe the pro-environmental behaviours they demonstrate in the workplace. Employees were asked to rate their leader’s environmentally-focused leadership style as well as their own passion and positive environmental behaviours in the workplace. 

What did the study find? 

  • If leaders actively use sustainable practices in the workplace, employees are more likely to engage in pro-environment behaviour at work as well. Leaders’ workplace pro-environmental behaviours predicted employees’ passion for the environment and workplace pro-environmental behaviours directly. 
  • Leaders indirectly influence their followers’ workplace pro-environmental behaviours when they share their values; convince followers that they can achieve at levels previously considered almost impossible; help employees think about issues in new ways; and establish a relationship with their employees through which they can exert an influence on pro-environmental behaviours.

What do I need to know?

This study suggests that transformational leadership can help inculcate an environmental sensibility in an organization. By displaying a consistent pattern of pro-environmental behaviours, leaders deliver a clear signal to employees. “As employees see their leaders voluntarily enact pro-environmental behaviours,” the researchers note in their paper, “they make inferences about their leaders’ values and about the desirability of different behaviours, and respond accordingly.”

The researchers suggest using leadership development initiatives to show how leadership can be expressed to influence the greening of organizations. Also worth considering is encouraging and rewarding leaders and employees for enacting environmentally friendly behaviours.


Title: Greening organizations through leaders’ influence on employees’ pro-environmental behaviors

Authors: Jennifer L. Robertson (Queen’s School of Business/Western University) and Julian Barling (Queen’s School of Business)

Published: Journal of Organizational Behavior (34, 176–194; 2013)

Brittany Harris

Learn more about pro-environment leadership in The Psychology of Green Organizations, co-edited by Jennifer L. Robertson and Julian Barling (Oxford University Press, 2015). Purchase the book.

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