By Steve Kelman

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'Leading by example' and organizational performance

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As some blog readers will recall, I regularly read a number of academic journals with articles relevant to public management, and sometimes blog about them to share the findings. I am particularly interested in studies that discuss how managers can improve their organization’s performance using techniques that require no new budget or other financial resources.

I just came across a great example of such research in the current issue of one of my favorite journals, the Academy of Management Journal. The title of the paper is “Leading by Doing: Does leading by example impact quality and service quality,” and the author is Liat Eldor, a postdoc fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. (Note that the article itself is behind a paywall, but most university libraries and some government libraries subscribe to this journal, and you can access it if your library has a subscription.)

The article contrasts the standard managerial technique of providing employees with instructions about what the manager wants the employee to do via “leading by example.” With this technique, the manager “demonstrates ideal workday behavior by engaging in employee activities,” the article explains. “Examples include a store manager who serves clients on the organization’s front line to demonstrate how sales and service should be executed or an executive director who works the front desk once a week to illustrate how clients should be treated.”

Eldor wants to see if such behaviors improve an organization’s performance, including in contrast to frequently discussed charismatic leadership behavior, where the manager lays out a vision of the organization’s future state but doesn’t demonstrate that vision by being a live model.

Eldor uses a good research methodology to gather her evidence. To find out the extent to which managers engage in leading by doing, she asks employees at a sample of retail stores to report, among other things, on to what extent their store manager “leads by ‘doing’ rather than by simply ‘telling’” and “is a good role model for me to follow.”

Note that the author asks employees to rate their managers rather than having the managers rate themselves, a less valid way to collect data. More importantly, data on store performance is gathered from objective outside sources, rather than the manager’s own rating of their organization’s performance. The two performance measures are store productivity – store revenues per employee – and service quality, rated by mystery shoppers in the stores. Too many academic studies on organizations, particularly in public administration, are marred by relying on self-reports of subjective perceptions to gather this kind of information.

The results are fascinating, and the methodology makes them credible. Leading by example enhanced store productivity and service quality at the store level, more than charismatic leadership who simply presented a vision in words.

Although the setting of this research is retail stores rather than government offices, there is no reason to believe that the same mechanism would not work in government – and the store setting makes it easier to demonstrate productivity and more practical to use mystery customers in a way that probably would not be accepted in a government context. I urge my manager-readers to pay attention to this study and consider how you can apply it in your own setting and to your own behavior. You can do it, and the suggestion here is that it will help.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 08, 2021 at 8:51 AM


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