Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
Is the paternalistic control style of leadership really obsolete?
By An-Chih Wang, Chou-Yu Tsai, Sheng-Bin Wang, and Hong-Quan Dai
Paternalistic control (a leadership strategy that uses assertion for absolute authority and demand for unquestioning obedience) remains widely used across many cultures, particularly in Confucian Asian settings. However, time and again, leadership studies demonstrate the downsides of this tactic, where leaders get the performance outcomes they desire, but at the cost of crushing their followers’ self-determination. This frequently leads followers to question their own sense of competence, control, and achievement, leading to a drop in job satisfaction and citizen behaviour norms.
While paternalistic control is increasingly being perceived in leadership circles as obsolete or, at best, a sledgehammer used to crack a nut (effective, but excessive!), our recent study demonstrates that leaders who shy away from exerting control can be as bad as those who grip the reins of control too tightly. Equally, there are times when followers consider it appropriate for their leaders to engage in such controlling behaviours for the good of a given project, or the wider collective.
From two daily experience sampling studies conducted in Taiwan (where paternalistic control is prevalent and consistent with cultural values), our results show that:
- When leaders demonstrate insufficient control, it is as detrimental as excessive control in terms of maintaining daily job satisfaction and encouraging optimal daily supervisor-directed citizenship behaviour.
- Follower expectations are crucial in determining the effectiveness of paternalistic control as a leadership style. When followers expect leaders to display paternalistic control, leaders’ display of it is seen as responsible and dutiful; a lack of it is seen as egocentric and selfish.
- When paternalistic control leaders belittle followers’ performance or competence it can result in favourable follower performance outcomes in certain circumstances, such as correcting mistakes and injustices, or ‘rooting out the bad apples’.
According to our results, it’s not about how much paternalistic control a leader uses that determines its ultimate effect; the match between expected and perceived paternalistic control better explains its influence on followers. Clearly, there are still conditions when paternalistic control may still be prevalent, necessary, and even effective, particularly in Confucian Asian settings where the leader–follower exchange is hierarchical. A specific example of this may be when leaders take forceful actions to correct followers who violate workplace ethics or make serious safety errors.
In terms of practical implications, these findings suggest that it is a mistake to view all cultural settings as equally unsuitable for paternalistic control style of leadership. In certain circumstances, such as correcting serious mistakes or ethical failings, followers expect their leaders to display controlling behaviours, and their own performance levels and job satisfaction can drop if such displays are not forthcoming.
Leaders should take a considered view regarding the expectations of their followers, and how those expectations are at least partially shaped by their cultural values and norms. Where followers expect to be given the chance to show autonomy at work, leaders should refrain from displays of excessive control, such as belittling their followers in front of their colleagues. However, in settings where followers expect their leaders to show their control, leaders should proactively use their position to emphasise strict discipline, provide strong guidance, and insist on adherence to high standards.
Calls from academic and business leaders to fully abandon paternalistic control leadership may be premature. While unthinkingly resorting to excessive control methods regardless of setting or context is like reaching for the sledgehammer for every task, there are situations where paternalistic control principles can drive favourable follower outcomes.
Having said this, leaders would be wise to still be cautious when considering engaging in belittling behaviours. Despite the implication of our results that the tactic can be effective in the right circumstances, it may violently clash with the organisation’s corporate values and the wider institutional regulations it must follow.
This article is based on a research paper entitled, “When Does Paternalistic Control Positively Relate to Job Satisfaction and Citizenship Behavior in Taiwan? The Role of Follower Expectation” by An-Chih Wang, Chou-Yu Tsai, Sheng-Bin Wang, and Hong-Quan Dai in the Journal of Applied Psychology
An-Chih Andrew Wang is Associate Professor of Managemen and Programme Co-Director of Leadership Development Programme at CEIBS. Chou-Yu Tsai is Osterhout Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the School of Management, Binghamton University, State University of New York. Sheng-Bin Wang and Hong-Quan Dai are Professors at the National Sun Yat-Sen University.