Lifebuoy floating in the vast expanse of sea

Leadership SOS: First-ever study finds that leaders are in worse mood after helping employees with personal issues

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It’s not uncommon for employees to send an SOS signal to their leaders when they need help, regardless of whether it’s related to an in-office problem or one of personal nature. In fact, some researchers estimate that leaders spend an average of 2.5 hours per week helping employees with personal problems like marital issues, challenging children and employee depression.

Klodiana Lanaj and Remy Jennings

Martin L. Schaffel Professor Klodiana Lanaj (left) and Warrington management Ph.D. student Remy Jennings.

Spending all of that time helping employees with personal problems can cause leaders to send out a distress signal of their own, according to new research from the University of Florida Warrington College of Business. In a paper titled Putting Leaders in a Bad Mood: The Affective Costs of Helping Followers with Personal Problems, Martin L. Schaffel Professor Klodiana Lanaj and Warrington management Ph.D. student Remy Jennings find that leaders’ negative affect increases during the day when helping their followers, or employees, with sensitive and emotional personal problems.

“This study is the first to show that on days when leaders help their followers with personal issues, they end up in a worse off mood at the end of the workday,” Lanaj said.

In a study among leaders at various organizations, participants were surveyed over a four-week period about how often they were asked to help with personal or work-related problems by their followers, their perceived prosocial impact of helping with personal problems and their emotions throughout the day.

The results of the study highlight that the type of help leaders provide plays a role in how much worse leaders’ moods may get after helping their followers. Lanaj and Jennings found that leaders’ mood was less harmed when they felt as if their guidance helped their follower’s personal issue.

“Perceived prosocial impact of personal help also enhanced positive affect and reduced negative affect, suggesting that those who felt that they were impactful through their personal helping were less upset by such episodes,” Lanaj and Jennings write.

However, leaders’ mood was particularly negatively affected when they were also asked to help with a follower’s work-related problem.

“Arguably, this happens because leaders have to juggle diverse goals from both task and personal domains and doing so is challenging, taxing and frustrating,” Lanaj said.

As part of the study, Lanaj and Jennings also surveyed followers of the leaders who participated in the study. The followers were asked to rate their leader’s work engagement each day at work.

According to the study’s results, when leaders helped with work-related issues, followers rated their leaders as more engaged that day at work. However, on days when leaders also helped with personal issues, followers rated their leaders as less engaged at work.

“These additional analyses suggest that helping with personal problems detracts from the positive influence that task-related helping has on daily work engagement,” Lanaj and Jennings write. “It is possible that when leaders help with personal issues, they have fewer resources available to devote to task-related helping, which may render the task helping that they do provide less effective overall. This possibility is in line with research suggesting that helping consumes resources and indirectly harms one’s goal progress.”

The complete paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.