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Happy Family, Happy Work: Study links transformational leadership to attachment theory

Monday, February 1, 2021

leadership concept

Imagine two scenarios at home before you begin your workday. In the first, your spouse surprises you with your favorite breakfast. In the second, you argue about finances.

In most instances, your response to either family interaction will carry into work and influence your behaviors with coworkers. And when it is consistently enriching, the experience can be transformational for supervisors, subordinates and organizations alike.

“Transformational leadership — or behaviors that inspire followers to move beyond their own self-interest and work toward the good of the group — often fails to reach the levels needed by subordinates each day,” says Benjamin Dunford, an associate professor of organizational behavior/human resources at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management. “Supervisors need regular support to ensure that they consistently display these expected behaviors at work.”

Dunford addresses that challenge in a recent paper, “Transformed by the Family: An Episodic, Attachment Theory Perspective on Family-Work Enrichment and Transformational Leadership.” The study was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and was coauthored by Shawn Mclean at University of Wyoming, Steven Courtright at Iowa State University, and Jun Yim at Texas A&M University.

Drawing upon and extending attachment theory to explore why and when positive family dynamics encourage transformational leadership, the researchers develop a model suggesting that family-work enrichment (FWE) acts as a within-person prime of promotion focus, which in turn enables supervisors to engage in transformational behaviors on a daily basis.

Within-person refers to change or fluctuation within a person; it questions whether fluctuations in people’s behavior are predicted by a latent personality or individual difference variable. Promotion focus represents a willingness to engage in risky, approach-oriented behaviors toward an ideal future.

The researchers explore two theoretically derived boundary conditions of this effect — supervisor attachment styles, focusing specifically on those with attachment avoidance (distrustful of intimate relationships) and those with attachment anxiety (overly valuing intimate relationships). In this way, transformational leadership is not only interpersonal, but also approach-oriented.

Results from two experience-sampling studies support the model. Specifically, daily FWE was positively associated with transformational leadership through daily promotion focus, with the positive effects being weaker for those higher on attachment avoidance and stronger for those higher on attachment anxiety

“This expands our understanding of the link between positive family experiences and subsequent leader behaviors, suggesting that while the family is a daily source of positive inspiration for supervisors, these positive results are not universal across all supervisors.”

Displaying these behaviors is difficult given the demanding nature of managerial roles. Since daily pressures usually take precedence over tomorrow’s needs, the day-to-day demands of leadership often prevent supervisors from inspiring and motivating their employees

While prior studies have identified potential positive workplace events as affecting supervisor behavior, it also can be shaped by family experiences. That points to an important focus on how the family can encourage positive leader behaviors.

“The study has numerous practical implications,” Dunford says. “For starters, while family-work studies collectively show the benefits of work-family balance for ordinary employees, our study reveals the benefit of helping managers achieve this balance as well. Transformational leadership is something that followers expect, and its positive effects on employee and organizational outcomes are well established.

“Organizations may believe that selection and training are the only ways to foster transformational leadership. Our study points to a different way that organizations can produce transformational supervisors: helping managers achieve work-family balance.”

Although prior work has shown that conflict at home is associated with negative leader behaviors, Dunford and his colleagues offer a more positive outlook.

“If organizations want to do more than just prevent negative leader behaviors, then our findings point to the importance of encouraging managers to be inspired by their home life,” Dunford says. “Shifting the focus from preventing negative leader behaviors to encouraging positive leader behaviors is also important because the latter can help organizations realize performance gains rather than simply prevent performance losses.”  

To that end, the researchers encourage organizations to incorporate evidence-based practices for facilitating perceptions of FWE, such as ensuring a family-friendly work culture and providing social support to both supervisors and employees. “These efforts may help organizations prime transformational leader behaviors on a daily basis, helping them realize the kinds of individual, team, and organizational outcomes associated with transformational leadership,” he says.

Based on the study’s findings, organizations trying to help supervisors be more transformational should not only focus on factors within the workplace, but also to the home — a source of such behaviors each day. “It is clear that supervisors who are inspired by their family on a daily basis are better able to provide positive leader behaviors for their employees at work,” Dunford says.

Source: Benjamin Dunford,