Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
“Is the boss one of us?” How important is it for followers to identify with their leaders?
By Matthew S. Rodgers, Tae-Yeol Kim, Tingting Chen and Emily David
While leadership is a nuanced concept, it is also largely a matter of identification – does the collective (those being led) believe that their leader identifies with them? Does their leader represent them? Are they, essentially, “one of them”? When this is the case, the leader enjoys high leader group prototypicality, an essential component for effective leadership and the various benefits it brings. Conversely, if this level of identification is missing, the negative impact on the group dynamic and subsequent group performance can be severe.
Our study explores how leaders can better understand their team’s perception of their prototypicality, and what this perception means in terms of affecting leadership outcomes and overall group performance. This is a relatively new approach, as social identity literature often focuses on how social identity processes affect followers, rather than leaders.
After collecting data from eight (multi-sector) companies from across Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, involving 402 group members and their 90 leaders, we discovered that the degree to which a group thinks their leader is “one of them” matters greatly regarding leadership effectiveness and overall performance outcomes.
Leaders who have low leader group prototypicality are susceptible to feeling a sense of leader identity threat (leaders feel that their team views their leadership more negatively than they do). Leaders who experience high leadership identity threat are likely to become less effective leaders, as they may suffer from heightened stress, reduced cognitive resources, lower performance expectancies and more rigid decision making, leading them to adopt more inflexible leadership approaches. They may become more brusque or irritable in interactions with their team, or alternatively may choose a more hands-off, laissez faire approach to leadership. Taken together, these factors can negatively impact team performance at both the leader and follower levels.
The team’s perceptions of leader group prototypicality are central to this matter, but leaders also have their own perceptions of how prototypical they themselves are. If a leader believes that they are representative of the group, they feel they have the necessary power and prestige to be a decisive and effective leader. If the team feels the same way (i.e. they accept the leader as being “one of us”) this leader-team positive congruence regarding their prototypicality makes the leader feel empowered and more confident when attempting to lead the group in new directions.
Organisational support is another vital moderating factor. Leaders who feel that their organisation values them, even if their team does not, are better positioned to manage leader identity threat. If they feel that the organisation ‘has their back’, they will be less susceptible to the stress, rigid thinking, etc., caused by leader identity threat, and more likely to retain their sense of identity even when being challenged by their team.
These results demonstrate the pressing need for leaders to fully grasp how representative of the group they are. While self-image matters greatly in leadership, the opinions of the team are central to determining how effective that leadership will ultimately be when delivered. Leaders should be aware of the dangers of identity threat, and should consistently work to gain the trust, acceptance and support of their followers. Moreover, they should pay close attention to whether their team’s perception of their leadership aligns with their own, and take measures to more closely align the two views wherever possible. Leaders may achieve this by being more open and transparent about themselves and their views, asking for honest feedback on their leadership, and striving to correct any misunderstandings and points of difference where they diverge from the group’s general mentality.
Organisations also have a vital role to play. Firstly, they can actively address the concept of leader identity threat as part of their leadership development programmes. Equally important are efforts to ensure that they maintain working environments where their leaders feel fully supported. Executive and peer coaching may be effective in heightening leaders’ awareness of these issues while broadening their range of suitable responses. Senior managers should also be trained to encourage and value the managers under them.
Ultimately, any organisation should aim to better understand the mentality, concerns and motivations of its employees. Leaders need to be fully aware of whether they are viewed by their followers as a trusted member of the collective who strives to better everyone’s fortunes, or a remote outsider who’s either uninterested in their needs or is actively working against them. The effectiveness of their leadership, and the group’s subsequent performance, depends upon it.
This article is based on a research paper entitled, “Effects of Leader Group Prototypicality on Leadership Outcomes through Leader Identity Threat: The Moderating Effects of Leader Perceptions of Organizational Support,” published in the Journal of Management Studies.
Matthew S. Rodgers is an Associate Professor of Management at Hope College. Tae-Yeol Kim is the Philips Chair in Management at CEIBS. Tingting Chen is an Associate Professor at Lingnan University. Emily David is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at CEIBS.