How Passive Leadership is Destroying Your Culture

Note: This post was originally published as part of the Deloitte Australia Diversity and Inclusion monthly newsletter, and can be accessed in full here.

One of the more pervasive theories of leadership is that of ‘Transformational Leadership,’ which describes a spectrum of leadership and management behaviours in terms of two distinct leadership styles:

  • Transformational Leadership: Leadership characterised by inspirational motivation, role modelling, challenging and stretching of staff, and driving staff to achieve new and better outcomes and challenge the status quo.
  • Transactional Leadership: Leadership characterised by a focus on driving compliance with rules and increasing efficiency of established routines through selectively rewarding or punishing outcomes that deviate from the norm.

While on face value these styles may appear as polar opposites, evidence suggests that leaders must actually employ both styles of leadership to be effective. Transactional leadership behaviours like goal setting, and attending to individual performance are critical to ‘getting work done’. Transformational leadership behaviours, meanwhile, like investing time in developing other leaders, and stimulating and challenging staff, are necessary for driving change and developing and growing individuals and an organisation.

But what happens when these behaviours are lacking?

A recent article by Associate Professors Crystal Harold and Brian Holtz (Temple University Philadelphia) examined the concept of ‘passive leadership’ as it relates to civility in the workplace – exploring the effect that the absence of deliberate leadership has on employee behaviours towards colleagues. Specifically, the authors explored whether passive leadership affects peoples’ perceptions of incivility (for example, rudeness, discourteousness) in the workplace, and whether it impacts the likelihood of a person being uncivil towards others.

Compared to transformational and transactional leadership, passive leadership is a laissez-faire leadership approach characterised by “passive management by exception” (where a leader waits until a problem has occurred before taking action) and behaviours such as avoiding decisions, and indifference.

READ MORE  Frame of Reference: Why Perspective Matters

In their study, Harold and colleagues recruited 122 employee-supervisor pairs (244 people in total) from a variety of occupations including retail, health care and the public service. Depending on their role in the pair, participants were asked to complete either:

  1.  An employee survey, which assessed employee perceptions of supervisor’s leadership behaviours, and personal experiences with incivility; or
  2. A supervisor survey containing self-report measures of leadership behaviour, and ratings of employee’s own uncivil behaviour.

Consistent with their hypotheses, the authors identified three key findings.

First, passive leadership had a direct effect on the degree of uncivil behaviour between colleagues. By failing to promote positive behavioural norms or take action in advance of uncivil behaviour occurring, passive leaders create a context and culture where incivility is allowed to propagate.

Second, passive leadership indirectly increases uncivil behaviour between colleagues by increasing the personal experience of incivility. This means that employees who experience passive leadership are more likely to experience higher levels of incivility in the workplace, and in turn more likely to respond with uncivil behaviours themselves.

Third, the relationship between passive leadership and the experience of incivility (and hence uncivil behaviour) is stronger at higher levels of passive leadership. That is, the experience of passive leadership in combination with behavioural incivility from colleagues may signal to employees that incivility is acceptable, which amplifies the relationship between the experience of incivility and personal uncivil behaviour.

Taken together, these results suggest that without direct leadership intervention, once incivility appears in the workplace it will spread throughout the workforce where it will directly (and negatively) impacting the culture of the organisation and ultimately its bottom line. To avoid this ‘spiralling incivility,’ leaders can employ some of the following techniques:

  • Recognise that proactive leadership and oversight is not incompatible with the provision of autonomy to staff – leaders can and should do both
  • Try to remove ambiguity around where and when leadership intervention is appropriate – for example, establish clear boundaries, guidelines and penalties for undesirable behaviours in the workplace
  • Role model positive and civil work behaviours. Positive behaviours start and end with the leader, so leaders should actively set the tone for what is acceptable. Example behaviours could include not checking a mobile phone during meetings, communicating clear expectations, and emphasising inclusion as a core value
  • Remember that passive leadership can actually be more destructive that the absence of good conduct and as damaging as actively role-modelling negative behaviours.
The following two tabs change content below.
Andrew is a full-time Management Consultant and part-time blogger who loves getting at the heart what makes businesses successful and customers happy. Read more about Andrew at his website
READ MORE  How Situations Influence Personality


Leave a Reply