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“Transformational leadership” curbs bad attitudes towards change, shows rare study of correctional officers

January 9, 2014

TORONTO, ON – It’s no sur­prise that a cyn­i­cal atti­tude towards the prospect of change makes change hard­er to imple­ment.

But it’s impor­tant to under­stand that cyn­i­cism hap­pens at an indi­vid­ual and work­place-wide lev­el and both must be addressed to get employ­ee buy-in for change ini­tia­tives. What’s more, lead­ers who can inspire their employ­ees and make them feel con­fi­dent in their work have the best chance of lim­it­ing the devel­op­ment of such dis­abling atti­tudes, says a study from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment.

“Hav­ing a leader who can do those things makes peo­ple want to change,” says Kather­ine DeCelles, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tion­al behav­iour at the Rot­man School. She led the study with Paul Tes­luk of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Buf­fa­lo and Faye Tax­man at Vir­gini­a’s George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty.

Their con­clu­sions were based on infor­ma­tion col­lect­ed through sur­veys with near­ly 700 cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers at 14 dif­fer­ent pris­ons in one mid-Atlantic U.S. state. Infor­ma­tion on employ­ee insub­or­di­na­tion was also gath­ered.

Not only did researchers con­firm that employ­ee cyn­i­cism con­tributed to low­er lev­els of com­mit­ment towards change, they also found that a more cyn­i­cal cli­mate in the work­place led to low­er lev­els of indi­vid­ual com­mit­ment towards change, regard­less of offi­cers’ per­son­al atti­tudes. A poor cli­mate could bol­ster indi­vid­u­als’ neg­a­tive atti­tudes too.

“The cyn­i­cism starts to become more of a norm, so it becomes much more entrenched,” said Prof. DeCelles.

Cyn­i­cism was reduced, how­ev­er, in work­places with “trans­for­ma­tion­al” lead­ers — peo­ple who helped employ­ees see them­selves as valu­able and com­pe­tent, and who suc­cess­ful­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed their ideas about why change was nec­es­sary and desir­able for every­body.

Pris­ons are rarely used as sub­jects for orga­ni­za­tion­al behav­iour research, said Prof. DeCelles, who ini­ti­at­ed the study after par­tic­i­pat­ing in a pre­vi­ous project about reha­bil­i­ta­tion activ­i­ties in U.S. cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties.

How­ev­er, their rigid, hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture made pris­ons ide­al for study­ing the effects of cyn­i­cism towards change, she said. With near­ly half a mil­lion employ­ees, a 38% turnover rate, and two mil­lion inmates, the prison sys­tem also deserves to be stud­ied because of the resources ded­i­cat­ed to it and the impor­tant role it plays in soci­ety.

“It real­ly is a sig­nif­i­cant orga­ni­za­tion on so many dif­fer­ent dimen­sions and yet we know very lit­tle about how it func­tions,” said Prof. DeCelles.

The paper was pub­lished in a recent issue of Orga­ni­za­tion Sci­ence.

For the lat­est think­ing on busi­ness, man­age­ment and eco­nom­ics from the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, vis­it

The Rot­man School of Man­age­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to is redesign­ing busi­ness edu­ca­tion for the 21st cen­tu­ry with a cur­ricu­lum based on Inte­gra­tive Think­ing. Locat­ed in the world’s most diverse city, the Rot­man School fos­ters a new way to think that enables the design of cre­ative busi­ness solu­tions.  The School is cur­rent­ly rais­ing $200 mil­lion to ensure Cana­da has the world-class busi­ness school it deserves. For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it


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Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
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