What I learned from (my) MSLOC capstone students

Leaders role in training, and leaders & culture impact on innovation

What I learned from (my) MSLOC capstone students

When you teach or chair sessions at (academic) conferences, you have to listen to several talks. Not all of them are interesting or well designed. But it is your role to comment or ignite a discussion. Asking good questions means paying attention and keeping pace with the speaker, regardless of how dull the story is.

One trick to help me focus on the speaker’s story is doodling. Specifically, drawing the speaker's story. If you don't know what I mean, check out Verity Harrison's work. My visual notes are a far cry from Verity's artwork, but it helps me capture the talk's gist. And form a question in my mind.

No photo description available.

Doodling comes especially handy when I'm listening to MSLOC's capstone students present their work. Not because of the content, but because, thanks to working across time zones, they are scheduled when my brain isn’t the most active anymore.

Every year I supervise a small number of capstone students and guide them through the research process. Their creativity and tenacity to finish their project always strikes me. Especially this year. Well done to all! 🎉

In this newsletter, I will share with you the results from the three studies that were presented in my session.

Lessons learned

  1. Leaders should develop individualized consideration to help employees apply new knowledge at work.
  2. Senior leaders need to develop high-quality relationships to enable innovation.
  3. People perceive companies with a clan or adhocracy culture to be more innovative.

The impact of leadership style on training transfer

There is already a lot of research on training transfer, the ability to use what you learned in your normal work environment. A lot of factors impact the success of a training program. Some of these a trainer can control. For example, good instructional material and an engaged and knowledgeable trainer. Others are outside the trainer's control: The motivation of the participants and everything related to the workplace.

Imagine this: You are told to learn how to use a new tool or follow a new process. You attend the training, but your manager doesn't care about the new tool or process and actively discourages you from using it. Chances are, you will not apply anything that you learned to your workplace. Your transfer is close to zero, and your time was wasted.

The impact a manager has on an employee's training transfer (i.e., how much an employee applies the newly learned content to the workplace) is well studied. Manager support is crucial. However, my student observed that the way manager support is defined in the literature only focuses on short-term behavior and ignores the long-term relationships employees and managers have. She argued that leadership style plays a role.

Leaders with a transformational leadership style focus more on the development of relationships with their employees. This relationship type of leadership could help employees transfer their newly acquired skills to the workplace. If your manager cares about you, she should want to see you grow and become more proficient in your current and future roles? That leads to her supporting your personal development and carving out opportunities to apply new knowledge.

On the other hand, managers with a transactional leadership style are more interested in getting tasks done. Their interests are not on developing relationships but on making sure that work gets done, the project is completed on time, and stay within budget. A manager with a transactional style might be less interested in creating space for employees to apply the newly learned skills. After all, learning something new always comes with a short-term drop in performance.

After running all the tests, the results were disappointing. Nada. Nothing. For a student, this is always disheartening. It shows that your thinking was wrong. Now, this is marvelous news, because you just learned something new! You have permission to go down another rabbit hole and to look for new answers.

Potentially, the people who filled out the questions mostly work in an industry with non-traditional hierarchies. The leader’s role in day-to-day action is less visible and hence has less of an impact. Another argument could be that for applying new skills, long-term relationships aren’t’ that important.

The student also kept analyzing and found two interesting patterns:

  1. Transactional and transformational leadership are not opposing points on a leadership style continuum. This reminded me of a conversation I had with Sonja Zaar: Leadership behavior is context-dependent. A great example of this Michael Lynton's leadership style after the Sony Hack.
  2. Employees who gave their managers high scores on individualized considerations, a leadership subdimension, also score higher on training transfer. There is something about this more coaching style of leadership that helps employees develop themselves and grow personally.

Leader-Member Exchange and innovative work behavior

The other student also looked at the relationship between leaders and employees but connected this to innovation and, more specifically, employees' innovative behavior. In brief, her research angle was that innovation, while an individual activity, is influenced by the relationship you have with others, specifically the dyad manager-employee relationship. Can you be innovative if your manager prefers steady and growing performance and does not have a lot of tolerance for performance dips?

The theoretical basis for the study was the leader-member exchange theory. Leader-member exchange theory focuses on the dyadic relationship between a leader and a follower and argues that followers develop unique relationships with their leader. The quality of this relationship influences follower's work attitudes and behaviors. Each employee develops a different relationship with their manager. A manager can therefore have a high-quality relationship with one employee and a low-quality one with another. Low-quality leader-member exchanges are purely transactional or economic. They follow the terms of the contract but do not go beyond it. Contrary to this, high leader-member exchange relationships go beyond the formal and include high trust and mutual respect levels. Employees in a high leader-member exchange relationship perform better but also have to meet higher expectations.

The student argued that individuals in a high leader-member exchange relationship engage in more innovative work behavior as they experience more psychological empowerment. This leads managers to perceive their behavior and actions as more innovative. However, after analyzing the data, the link between leader-member exchange and innovative work behavior was close to zero.

However, digging further, the student found that with increasing seniority, those employees who have a high-quality leader-member exchange relationship are more innovative. This has an important implication for leadership training for senior leaders: They need to cultivate high-quality relationships for their reports to be able to engage in innovative behaviors and not feel restrained by red tape or other organizational factors.

Does culture eat strategy for breakfast?

The last presentation in this session was on culture, but it also incorporated innovation. The student argued that the perception of how innovative an organization is, depends on two factors: The strength of the culture and the culture type. Culture type explains what the dominant and less dominant features of organizational culture are. The framework defines four culture types and is based on the competing values framework. It consists of two dimensions: Flexibility vs. stability and internal vs. external.

The first dimension argues that some organizations are effective if they focus on flexibility, discretion, and dynamism. On the other hand, organizations should focus on stable, predictable, and mechanisms if their effectiveness depends on steadiness and durability.

The second dimension differentiates between internal and external focus. Internal focus describes an organization that needs to have cohesive relationships between employees to be effective. By contrast, other organizations need to have an external focus to be effective. This translates into interacting or competing with others outside the organization.

These two dimensions lead to four culture types: Clan, adhocracy, market, and hierarchy culture. Organizations normally have a dominant culture type, but also features of the other culture types.

The student demonstrated that their employees perceive organizations whose dominant culture is a clan or adhocracy culture to be more innovative. Thus, focusing on flexibility compared to stability increases employees’ perception of how innovative their employer is.

Now, does this mean that all organizations need to focus on flexibility compared to stability? I do not think so. I think that the organizational environment influences what culture type is best for an organization. That being said, this research highlights that organizations need to have processes in place to communicate how it invests and nourishes innovation.

Looking forward to 2021

The capstone presentation marks the end of a long process. This year harder than usual for the students, instructors, and capstone advisors (including me). It is fitting that it ends in the winter. Like the trees and flowers, my teaching activities are resting during the winter months and will resurface next spring.

If you were present at this capstone presentation or a talk recently, what did you learn?

Leave a comment

Subscribe to System Thinking

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.