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Do Nothing Bosses

Most employees can see the benefits of an effective boss, and a great deal of research has focused on effective leadership’s benefits to organizations, but what about those bosses who take a more passive stance in their leadership roles?

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SIOP Member’s Research Investigates the Detrimental Effects of Passive Leadership

Most employees can see the benefits of an effective boss, and a great deal of research has focused on effective leadership’s benefits to organizations, but what about those bosses who take a more passive stance in their leadership roles? Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology (SIOP) member Brian C. Holtz’s research shows these “do nothing” bosses can have serious negative effects on their organizations.

Atlhough much has been written about the organizational benefits of high-quality and effective leadership, very few studies have examined the effects of “do nothing” bosses, or passive leaders, explained Holtz, an assistant professor of Management at Rutgers University where he teaches courses in strategic human resource management and organizational behavior. So he set out to determine what effect these passive leaders have on organizations.

In a recent study, Holtz examined the psychological and behavioral reactions to passive leadership. More specifically, the study investigated the influence of passive leadership on employees’ perceptions of workplace incivility, organizational identification, and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), proposing that passive leadership primarily influences these outcomes through its effect on perceived organizational support (POS).

Results of the study showed that passive leaders can have serious consequences for organizational effectiveness, and specifically, this passive leadership was associated with lower perceived support, weaker organizational identity, less citizenship behavior, and greater workplace incivility.

“Historically, research has focused on effective leadership behavior and paid relatively little attention to ineffective leadership behavior,” Holtz explained. “The results of this study suggest that failing to lead can have detrimental effects on organizational functioning. Specifically, results suggested that passive leadership was associated with increased perceptions of workplace incivility, lower organizational identification, and reduced citizenship behavior. These findings have important implications for research and practice.”

In a poster detailing this research, which was presented at the 26th Annual SIOP Conference April 14-16 last year in Chicago, Holtz defines passive leadership and explains his reasons for researching its effects. Passive leaders, he said, avoid engaging with their subordinates, fail to make decisions, and are generally ineffective. Passive leadership is defined as a combination of passive management by exception and laissez-faire leadership, where passive management by exception represents an avoidance of action until mistakes or problems can no longer be ignored and laissez-faire leadership is defined as the absence of leadership all together, he added.

This passive leadership has been shown through previous studies to effect organizations. For example, passive leadership has been shown to negatively impact safety climate and increase injury rates, Holtz cited. Similarly, laissez-faire leadership has been found to result in greater role conflict, role ambiguity, interpersonal conflict with coworkers, perceived bullying, and psychological distress. Holtz sought to extend this line of research to examine the effects of passive leadership on additional outcomes.

For his study, Holtz measured passive leadership, perceived organizational support (POS) (for example, participants were asked to indicate their agreement with the following statement: “Help is available from my organization when I have a problem”), workplace incivility (“My coworkers or superiors have made demeaning or derogatory remarks about me”), organizational identification (“When someone praises my organization, it feels like a personal compliment”), and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) (“I have taken action to protect the organization from potential problems”).

He collected data in three waves using a web-based survey methodology. First, the survey assessed perceptions of passive leadership. Second, it measured POS, and third, it assessed the outcome measures (i.e., incivility, identification, and OCBs). Each successive survey administration was separated by about 4 weeks. Participants were recruited on the campus of a North American university, with 208 individuals providing complete data across the three time points.

“The findings of the research suggest that employees of passive leaders ultimately perceive their organization does not care about their well-being or provide the support necessary to succeed,” Holtz explained. “Further, the results of this study suggest that workplace incivility may flourish under passive leaders.”

Holtz outlines in his research some of the reasons “do nothing” bosses may practice passive leadership.

“It is conceivable that well-intentioned supervisors could mistakenly perceive that passive leadership is an effective management style,” he said. “For instance, supervisors might wish to avoid being perceived as ‘micromanaging’ subordinates. Similarly, supervisors might understand that providing autonomy can be empowering and foster motivation among employees. This could lead individuals to assume that a hands-off approach to leadership is optimal.”

Holtz added that organizations should help supervisors recognize that providing employee autonomy and demonstrating effective leadership are not mutually exclusive. For example, he explained, providing autonomy can be accomplished simply by allowing flexibility in how, or when, employees will accomplish particular work activities.

This study does have possible limitations, Holtz added. For example, participants were recruited on a university campus, and although all participants were working adults, they only worked an average of 26 hours per week. It would be important to replicate the study’s findings in a field sample of full-time employees, he said.

“An important next step in this line of research would be to replicate these findings using methods other than self-report surveys,” Holtz said. “For example, researchers might assess passive leadership by aggregating across subordinate perceptions of their common supervisor.”