Research Article: When a leader job resource can be ambivalent or even destructive: Independence at work as a double-edged sword

Date Published: May 23, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Paola Gatti, Michelle C. Bligh, Claudio G. Cortese, Robert Didden.


Independence at work is commonly considered a job resource which fosters motivation and employee well-being. Somewhat paradoxically, it is embedded in a relationship, and employees’ independence also hinges on their leaders’ willingness to grant it. Analyzing this resource as part of the leader-follower relationship can be useful in exploring its beneficial, ambivalent, or detrimental reciprocal effects. We present two Actor-Partner Interdependence Models (APIM) which analyze leaders’ and followers’ independence as antecedents, and work engagement and emotional exhaustion as outcomes. We test our models on 112 pairs of UK workers, finding a significant partner effect between leaders’ independence and followers’ exhaustion. Our findings confirm the utility of a dyadic perspective for investigating leadership and well-being at work, and suggest improvements for leadership training and measures fostering job well-being.

Partial Text

Independence at work is a job resource (viz., an aspect of the job that works as a health protecting factor, see [1, 2]) which is dependent on having interpersonal connections [3]. As such, it is enacted in the framework of a relationship. Since the first and most influential work relationship is, of course, that between a leader and a follower [4], it seems particularly appropriate to investigate autonomy in the leader-follower dyadic relationship to shed light on its “interdependent nature”.

Levels of IaW differed significantly between leaders and followers, while levels of work engagement and emotional exhaustion did not (see Table 2). Specifically, leaders perceived higher independence at work than followers (leaders’ mean = 3.34, followers’ mean = 3.19; t = 2.20, p < .05), but in both subsamples the level of IaW was quite high. The findings from the two APIM models confirm that there are significant actor effects in both models, showing that IaW increases work engagement and decreases emotional exhaustion for both leaders and followers, and bearing out the role of IaW as an important job resource at an individual level. These effects are slightly different (but not in a statistically significant way): followers’ actor effect on WE has the highest beta coefficient, while leaders’ actor effect is lower, as followers’ actor effect on EE is lower and almost identical to leaders’. This is in line with some JD-R assumptions and a number of considerations voiced in the leadership literature. The innovative finding is the partner effect from leaders’ IaW to followers’ EE: the higher leaders’ IaW, the higher followers’ EE. The study thus sheds light on a downside of the IaW resource when considered in a leader-follower relationship. Just as laissez-faire leadership is linked to followers’ stress [49, 50], this study found that leaders’ IaW is linked to followers’ EE. The fact that there is no significant partner effect from leaders’ IaW to followers’ WE was not expected, but the relationship between the two variables is in the anticipated direction. The stronger partner effect with EE can be explained by the nature of this outcome which is a component of the intrinsically relational syndrome of burnout [65]. It may be that leaders’ high IaW can (paradoxically) burden their followers since it is linked to a weaker exchange between the leader and the follower and to less frequent contacts, resulting in a low level of information exchange between the partners in the relationship. This could be a stressful downside of leaders’ IaW for followers, whose (uninformed) life on the job could cause them greater anxiety. We focused here on the partner effect from leaders to followers, but it should be pointed out that if we consider the model on indistinguishable dyads we would still have a significant partner effect. It would thus be very important to investigate what makes IaW an emotionally demanding characteristic in the leader-follower relationships in general. It might also be rewarding to focus on specific kinds of followers (e.g., those whom their leaders consider to be the best coworkers or those closest to them) to see if this partner effect becomes fully significant while treating dyads as distinguishable.   Source:


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