How organisational culture can impact motivation to lead

Last week, The Guardian published a piece which explored why fewer social workers are looking to move in to a management role.

One of the main reasons given was that social workers feel they are likely to have less impact the more senior they become.

But I wonder if there is something which relates more to the culture of the system within which employees like social workers operate. Many of us will be familiar of the high-profile media coverage of ‘failing’ social services, with various managers and leaders having their faces and lives splashed on the front page of the tabloids.

Which is why I was so interested to come across research published in the July 2017 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology which looked at employees’ motivation to lead, motivation to develop leadership skills and the context which encouraged or discouraged these.

The research

Data was collected from 151 employees and their managers, from different organisations across the United States. A survey was conducted at the start of the 12-month period and then repeated again at the end.

The survey explored three aspects of career success – promotion, pay increase and increase in responsibilities.

The researchers used a framework by Kim Yin Chan and Fritz Drasgow which suggests that central to the idea of leadership development is the motivation to lead (MTL). MTL has three facets:

  1. Affective identity: Does the person prefer leading and are they seen by others as having leadership qualities?
  2. Social-normative: To what extent does the person feel a responsibility, duty and obligation to lead?
  3. Non-calculative: To what extent does the person not put a premium on privileges, benefits and/or pre-requisites that come with a leadership role?

The researchers were also keen to explore what they saw as a gap in the Chan-Drasgow framework, namely that whilst someone may be motivated to lead, they may not be motivated to develop leadership skills (MTDL).

In addition, the research looked at the impact of two different types of organisational culture:

  1. Error aversion culture – employees avoid any kind of mistakes fearful of the repurcussions, the culture is reactive and if mistakes are made they are punished; versus
  2. Error management cultureit’s recognised mistakes will be made and so, employees are encouraged to learn from mistakes, sharing that learning and taking a proactive approach to managing risk.

The suggestion being that a perceived punitive culture may put some employees off of leadership roles, while a perceived positive culture may encourage and motivate people to step up.

The findings

  1. Employees who perceived there to be an error management culture were more likely to be motivated to lead (MTL) and motivated to develop leadership skills (MTDL);
  2. Employees who perceived there to be an error aversion culture were less likely to be MTL due to low psychological safety, feeling little control over outcomes and thinking a leadership role in such a culture might have a negative effect on their career success;
  3. Where it was perceived to be a punitive error aversion culture, employees were less likely to actively step up and take on leadership roles (affective identity) and be more concerned with benefits (non-calculative);
  4. MTDL was shown to be a better predictor of career success and leadership capability than simply being MTL;
  5. Employee perceptions of error management and error aversion were inconsistent in how they influence leadership motivations; and
  6. Organisational culture where mistakes are constructively managed were more likely to enhance leadership motivations, leadership capacity (behaviour, development and potential) and career success.

Implications for organisations


The researchers acknowledged a weakness in that they did not look at organisational performance data or error management data. This aside, it is still a useful piece of research for those working in the field of leadership development. In particular, key learning points are:

  1. Creating a psychologically safe culture, where people are encouraged to own and learn from their mistakes without fear, can make a difference to the leadership pipeline. This is not saying that all mistakes are equal – some are more serious than others. However, when a person makes a mistake it is important to take in to consideration the wider system within that person was operating. What policies and processes were in place? Did these help or hinder? What support did the person get from their manager or others ahead of the mistake being made? Context is key. It influences “how frequently, how intensely and how persistently employees engage in [developmental] activities” (Feldman & Ng, 2008)
  2. Developing managers and leaders in the skills needed to manage mistakes and failure in a constructive way. This includes learning how to give feedback in a timely and helpful manner, along with taking a curious, non-judgemental stance and genuinely wanting to learn from the employee why the mistake happened.
  3. Establishing action learning sets and learning circles can go a long way to creating an environment in which people feel safe to share things they are struggling with or that have gone wrong. The skills developed in such situations include the ability to listen well, to look for patterns in the problem, suggesting solutions and showing compassion for others.
  4. Managers can create the right kind of culture by encouraging reflection as part of the day-to-day routine, whether that’s in one-to-ones, team meetings or simply in conversation whilst making a coffee with a team member. This is where coaching skills are so vital for people managers.
  5. Understanding the difference between being motivated to lead and being motivated to develop leadership skills is crucial. If you are responsible for leadership development in your organisation, you might want to think about how people are selected for any programme. When I designed and ran a leadership programme for a public sector organisation, we put people through a three-stage process to get on to the programme. Each stage was completely geared to understanding what was motivating the individual to go through the year long programme. This was particularly important for those just starting out in their careers, who weren’t necessarily in a formal leadership position.

Hopefully, this post and the research that underpins it has given you food for thought. Why not share your thoughts, comments and ideas on how we can develop the right environment for people to step up in to leadership roles?

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