SHRM Foundation Research
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SHRM Foundation Research


The Motivational Leadership Training Program

Funded: March 2010     Completed: December 2012 

Marylène Gagné, Ph.D., John Molson School of Business, Concordia University

Executive Summary
Because organizations want to know how to motivate and engage their employees in a healthy fashion (i.e., preserving or enhancing their well-being), and because a large number of organizations send their managers to leadership training, it is essential to conduct research that will help us understand the influence of leadership training programs on employee motivation, performance, and well-being. 

The Motivational Leadership Training Program examined the mediational role of work motivation in the relationship between leadership training and changes in employee performance and well-being.  Grounded in the theory of full-range leadership and self-determination theory, this training program offers an additional training tool to organizations so that they can improve managerial effectiveness.  The training program was tested through a quasi-experimental design including pre/post-tests to evaluate if it had an impact on subordinate motivation, performance, and well-being. 

Transformational leadership was the focus of this training program.  It consists as acting as a role model, providing meaning and challenge, and considering individual needs.  Training also focused on using transformational leadership to fulfill psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, in order to increase autonomous work motivation (which means to do something out of enjoyment and meaning as opposed to rewards and guilt).


1. Leadership training does not have clear cut effects on employee motivation. Preliminary analyses showed no change in leadership behaviors following training, nor any changes in employee work motivation.  However, trained managers reported that training was very useful, easy to apply at work, and that they were very satisfied and would recommend the program.  The fact that our reports do not support the hypothesis that leadership training improves employee work motivation and performance does not mean that organizations should not invest in such training.  Since such training has been shown to have effects in previous research, possible reasons for the lack of change are numerous. 

It could be that managers, after learning about what constitutes leadership, may have become more critical of themselves, which may have led them to subsequently rate themselves more harshly in the post-test, or that employees may have raised their expectations about their manager’s behavior, making them harsher in the post-test.  It could also be that another event, such as restructuration, reversed the effect.  Indeed, in many of the organizations, other events co-occurred during the project, many of which may have negatively affected employee motivation.  It is also possible that such training helps some managers more than others.  Indeed, the training literature suggests that training does not have uniform effects on everyone. 

For example, it is possible that autonomously motivated managers will integrate what they learn during training more than those who are not, and that narcissistic managers may integrate what they learn less than those who are not.  It is also possible that employees who do not have frequent face-to-face contact with their managers may be less affected by changes in their manager’s behavior than those who do.  In the software firm, the authenticity of managers’ leadership, which implies being self-aware and of high moral character, increased for managers who had initially high levels of transformational leadership.  Thus, it appears that managers who already have a transformational leadership style become even more at ease with it following training. 

2. A managers’ leadership style does influence employee motivation.  Employees who perceived that their manager became more transformational after training reported increases in their own work motivation.  In particular, they increasingly worked out of enjoyment and meaning.  Therefore, we found better support for the idea that managers’ leadership behavior can change their subordinates’ work motivation than for the idea that subordinates’ work motivation can change their managers’ leadership style.  In the software firm, managers who were authentic in their leadership style had employees who felt more competent, autonomous and related to others at work.  This in turn was related to higher levels of motivation through enjoyment and meaning.  So the best combination is to be authentically transformational.  Faking it does not pay off.

3. Transformational leadership is applicable in other cultures.  Data from one of the government agencies was compared to data from a Chinese sample of software workers.  No differences were found in the strength of the relation between managers’ leadership and employee work motivation across the Canadian and Chinese samples, even when controlling for the employees’ own reports of their cultural values.  We can therefore say that it is possible to apply transformational leadership to cultures that are more collectivistic.

4. Transformational leadership is an antidote against violence.  The manufacturing firm experienced problems with psychological and physical violence at work.  Violence at work is unfortunately a reality and it is very costly both financially and psychologically.  After the leadership training, employees reported seeing a dramatic decrease in these behaviors.  Since perceptions of violence at work were linked to reports of anxiety and distress, the increasing use of transformational leadership had a double effect: it not only buffered against the distressing effects of violence, but also decreased its occurrence. 

Study Methods
 A longitudinal study was conducted in four Canadian organizations (647 employees) and one Italian (582 employees) organization.  The organizations included a software firm, a manufacturing firm, two government agencies, and a hospital center.  One hundred and twenty Canadian managers and 35 Italian managers underwent a two-day training program on transformational leadership.  Managers and subordinates completed pre- and post-training surveys reporting on their manager’s (own) leadership styles, their own work motivation, psychological need satisfaction, individual engagement, performance, and well-being.  Other measures were taken in particular organizations, such as perceptions of workplace violence, and personality trait measures.  
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