Research Brief: The ADHD-to-Zzzs of Passive Leadership

Searching for a mental health connection when leaders are missing in action
Research Brief: The ADHD-to-Zzzs of Passive Leadership

What Did the Study Look At?

Passive leaders — those who avoid or delay taking necessary action when problems arise — can wreak havoc on workplace performance. Research has shown that passive leaders have a negative impact on how employees perceive their roles and are responsible for role conflict, ambiguity, and work overload. Their inability to reward good work and correct bad work causes higher levels of employee stress.

The question is, What makes some people predisposed to be passive leaders?

These researchers hypothesized that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be a driver of passive leadership behaviour. They point to recent studies suggesting that adult ADHD is associated with decreased job performance, higher conflict with coworkers, lower motivation levels, and higher turnover.

This study looked at whether there was either a direct link between ADHD and passive leadership or a mediating factor such as daytime sleepiness — an outcome of ADHD — that would explain why leaders withdraw from their responsibilities.

How Was the Study Designed?

The study focused on 98 leader-follower pairs, recruited from a pool of senior managers who had attended executive development education at a Canadian business school over a two-year period. ADHD symptoms and daytime sleepiness were both assessed through leader surveys and passive leadership behaviours were measured through follower ratings. Controls were put in place to account for leaders’ age, gender, and incidence of anxiety and depression.

What Did the Study Find?

  • There was an indirect effect of ADHD on passive leadership. ADHD significantly predicted daytime sleepiness which, in turn, predicted passive leadership behaviour.
  • There was no evidence of a significant direct effect of ADHD on passive leadership.

What Do I Need to Know?

The key takeaway is that daytime sleepiness in the workplace can have far-reaching effects. When leaders feel like nodding off at work, their cognitive attention is compromised and they have a harder time regulating their own behaviour. When that happens, they will likely not notice their followers’ good or bad performance or be in any position to take action.

How can organizations manage the effects of sleep deprivation on passive leadership behaviour? The researchers say there are benefits of “low-cost, internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia” and “readily accessible, validated treatments for obstructive sleep apnoea.”

And they highlight the potential need for leaders to disclose any mental health disorders that could interfere with their performance. This is a controversial idea: Do company board members or shareholders have a right to know about these conditions? The answer may depend on the type of organization and the leader’s role.

Companies are certainly taking note of the low-cost, accessible options available to combat the effects of daytime sleepiness. From Google’s famous nap pods to private nap rooms, organizations in various sectors are recognizing the importance of adequate sleep and finding ways to increase productivity and enhance employee wellness.


Title“Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms and passive leadership: The mediating role of daytime sleepiness”

Authors: Erica L. Carleton (University of Saskatchewan), Julian Barling (Smith School of Business, Queen’s University)

Published: Stress & Health (vol. 34, issue 5, 663-673)

— Kate Irwin

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