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Laws of attraction: We respond more favourably to altruistic leadership

Acclaim for altruistic leaders abounds. A 2015 survey of millennials by Deloitte found that 75 percent of millennials believe businesses are too fixed on their agendas and not focused enough on helping to improve society. There’s increasing attraction to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) deemed genuine, says Magda Donia, an assistant professor at the Telfer School of Management. The trend underscores, from an organizational behaviour perspective, that “motives matter” (real and attributed), professor Donia explained in an interview.

So, when is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) a hit with employees?

My research and other scholarship shows that employees’ attributions in regard to their employer’s CSR efforts – in particular whether they view them as symbolic or substantive – matter a lot.  Patagonia involved their employees in relief efforts after BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill. They provided full financial support and salary and related expenses to empower their employees to contribute fully to the relief efforts. These kinds of organizations choosing substantive CSR tend to be viewed more favourably by employees and they will likely appeal to millennials in the job market too.

What about symbolic CSR? Is it better than doing nothing at all?

Maybe. Then again, it might not be worth doing. If the employees evaluate their organization’s CSR efforts as self-serving, there will be costs. There will be cynicism and charges of green-washing.

Where do the employees come up with their “attributions”?

These are attributions shaped by a wide range of influences and, in particular, a person’s work experiences. Think of the employee as an intuitive psychologist who observes their employer’s CSR behaviour, then imputes certain motives. Because this sensemaking of observed behaviors is often more automatic than conscious, it is powerful. Managers should take note. As should, for that matter, anyone in the company with a say in creating and communicating CSR programs.

Your research also says leadership that looks out for the needs of others benefits organizations.

Yes, there is evidence of what we call servant leadership helping employee wellbeing. Where you have a more altruistic leader, you tend to have more job satisfaction and less chance of turnover. Our research using data collected from 192 supervisor-subordinate pairs found that this relationship holds true for employees with selfless and those with self-serving motives.  Although as expected, subordinates’ motives influence the strength of the connection. The employees who were high on impression management reported lower levels of job satisfaction than those that were not.

What are the implications of all this for CSR and altruistic leaders?

A leader may be great, but if the employee’s motivations are not aligned with those of the leader, there is a limit to the value this leader can provide. It would appear that for a follower to accept a leader’s influence and benefit from his or her leadership style, that leader must incorporate at least some of the employee’s vision of an ideal leader.

As for corporate social responsibility, we have data showing that employees’ attributions of CSR as symbolic are not related to valued attitudinal and behavioral outcomes like commitment to the organization. Such attributions may even lead to negative outcomes and feeling that one’s values do not match those of the firm. The bottom line is that in order for employees to respond favourably to their employer’s efforts, they have to attribute these efforts as substantive.