When a good leader is a bad thing

For organisations that have an excellent customer service ethos, strong team leaders can actually have a detrimental effect. That’s the paradoxical finding of Harry Hui and colleagues who investigated 511 employees comprising 55 teams at a range of Chinese companies, including two hotels and a telecommunications firm. The finding suggests companies should be careful to ensure team leaders are in tune with their organisation’s wider service culture.

Employees rated the customer service ethos of their organisation by reporting their agreement with statements like “the business does a good job keeping customers informed of changes that affect them”. They rated the strength of their team leader via their agreement with statements like “Your supervisor often introduces unique insights and plans”.

For organisations with a poor ethos, strong team leaders had a beneficial effect on customer service. But if an organisation’s service ethos was good, then the effect of a strong team leader on external customer service was negligible, while his/her effect on internal customer service (i.e. involving contact between colleagues) was detrimental. The researchers said this “challenges the deep-seated belief that an effective leader and a favourable climate should be additive in their positive impact”.

The apparent paradox of a good leader having a bad effect could be caused by the leader being out of synch with the organisation’s broader service climate. For example, the company may prescribe standardised ways of dealing with customers, while the strong leader may preach innovation. Regarding internal relations: it may be that when leadership is poor, staff compensate by “cultivating a collegial spirit” but that this isn’t necessary with a strong leader.

The findings come with a large caveat, acknowledged by the researchers: customer service (internal and external) was rated by the team leaders who were themselves the focus of the investigation. It’s possible that stronger leaders had higher expectations regarding customer service, and so rated their team members’ performance more harshly.

Hui, C.H., Chiu, W.C.K., Yu, P.L.H., Cheng, K. & Tse, H.H.M. (2007). The effects of service climate and the effective leadership behaviour of supervisors on frontline employee service quality: A multi-level analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 80, 151-172.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.