Transformational, Supportive Leadership during COVID-19

By K. A. Arnold, A. J. Hancock and J.K. Dimoff

The behaviour of managers and supervisors in organizations affects the mental health of their employees. This is especially true during times of uncertainty, such as a global pandemic.

Does a leader’s health and well-being change how they lead?

Early evidence shows that when leaders are experiencing challenging conditions, they are more likely to become resource depleted and exhibit negative behaviours, such as passive leadership or abusive supervision. You know the kind of boss who doesn’t give you any credit, puts you down in front of others, or is simply never around?

When leaders are resource depleted and are experiencing poor health (e.g., lack of, or poor quality sleep; excessive use of alcohol), they are more likely to act abusively. The good news is that leaders are often well-equipped to deal with stressors that affect us all, like the impacts of COVID-19, and can take steps to prevent passing their difficulties on to their employees.

Three styles of leadership can help support employee well-being during difficult times.

“Transformational leadership” has consistently been associated with positive mental health for the workforce.

It includes behaviours such as stating a vision for the group, communicating expectations clearly and delivering realistic and positive messages on those expectations. Transformational leadership also embraces values-based behaviour such as doing the right thing, even when it is difficult. It means caring for employees as individuals.

Transformational leadership has been positively associated with employees’ psychological well-being, workplace morale and is may be especially helpful for employees at times of high stress and uncertainty. It is also related to lower employee burnout.

It may also be good for leaders.

When leaders report using a leadership style that combines positive combinations of transformational leadership and contingent reward — rewarding employees when they do good work and communicating clear expectations — leaders may experience lower levels of burnout. However, transformational leadership, alone, may not be enough during times of crisis. It also appears that it may not come as easily to all leaders. Under such circumstances, leaders can use supportive leadership strategies and prioritize self-care.

“Supportive leadership” also has a positive association with employee mental health.

Supportive leaders provide both emotional and instrumental support by acting as role models who take care of their own mental health and talk about mental health openly to reduce stigma. They help to diminish fears associated with mental health and improve employee well-being.

To show emotional support, leaders can demonstrate empathy and concern for employees’ well-being by checking in frequently and asking how employees are doing using open-ended questions, such as ‘How can I help?’

Instrumental support can include equipping employees with the tools they need to get the job done, whether it means offering flexibility with deadlines, working hours, or approving requests for accommodations to minimize conflict between work and family responsibilities.

While the research on best practice leadership models continues, one thing remains clear: leaders must take care of themselves in order to take care of their employees.

We know that when leaders are more mindful, and when they get regular physical exercise, they are less likely to engage in destructive leadership behaviours.

During this time of stress and upheaval, leaders must continue (or start) rituals of self-care. This may look different for each leader, but some things that can be helpful are taking time for yourself, spending time outdoors in nature, practicing mindfulness, eating well, exercising, socializing with those close to you, even if virtually, setting work/home boundaries and having realistic expectations of what can be accomplished.

Anything that replenishes a leader’s energy to allow them to continue to be positive leaders will be worthwhile.

Leaders have an ethical responsibility to enact behaviours that will support their employees’ mental health. In turn, a leader’s own well-being can affect how they lead. It is essential for leaders to take care of themselves in order to be in a position to take care of their employees.

Dr. Kara Arnold is a professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Faculty of Business Administration at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Amanda Hancock is a 4th year PhD Candidate at Memorial University’s Faculty of Business Administration where she is studying management with a focus on Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour.

Dr. Jennifer Dimoff is an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.