Transformational leadership and the meaning of work

It’s how you frame it: Transformational leadership and the meaning of work

Timothy P. Munyon and I recently published this article in Business Horizons (May/June, 2013).  You can find the article in your local library, but here is a brief overview.

Transformational leadership has emerged as one of the most important approaches for understanding and influencing member effectiveness. Inherent in this approach is the belief that transformational leaders inspire employees to greater levels of motivation and performance. Recent evidence has shown that this effect is accomplished by managing the meaning of work for employees, yet it is often unclear exactly how leaders may influence perceptions of work for their employees. Consequently, in this paper, we present behavioral and verbal cues leaders may use to enact positive change in their employees.

HO frame

Here is the process model we presented in the paper.  As you see, transformational leaders manage the meaning of work by “framing” the work of followers such that they see both the value of their work and the skill they possess in executing their jobs.  This process is discussed at length I the paper.


We use the Hackman and Oldham job characteristics model below (Click on images to enlarge)

Select Excerpts

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. – Max De Pree 

The traditional view of transformational leadership suggests a social influence process between a leader and an employee. This premise is widely supported by empirical research, showing transformational leaders are able to inspire and motivate employees to greater levels of performance. However, we propose that a leader’s influence involves more than exerting personal power over employees to share a vision of the organization, encouraging them to work harder at tasks, and persuading them to search for new and innovative ways of doing their work. The evidence suggests that leaders shape the meaning of work through framing.

Scholars have described leadership as a “language game” (Pondy, 1978) and a process of symbolic action (Pfeifer, 1981). Indeed, evidence suggests that transformational leadership does involve redefining the nature and quality of work for employees. Transformational leaders use words, actions or symbols when talking about work to enhance its significance and meaning.  Framing is the process of selecting and highlighting certain aspects of a situation, while minimizing or excluding the importance of others, so that one meaning is accepted over another (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996). The effects of framing are well established.

When a leader is successful in reframing a follower’s view of their job, the follower gains a better understanding of how his or her work contributes to meaningful outcomes for the organization. This new view (frame) is instrumental in helping the employee understand the value of even the smallest and seemingly trivial tasks toward accomplishing important organizational goals.

Consider the story of a janitor who worked for NASA in the mid-1960s. One day, as he was sweeping the floor late in the afternoon, someone asked him what he was doing. Without hesitation he replied “putting a man on the moon.” Someone, somewhere along the line, had turned his attention away from the mop closet and toward the launch pad. He saw the “big picture” and knew that he played a role in achieving it. A frame is just one particular perspective, and sometimes, perspective is everything! Transformational leaders know this and capitalize on opportunities to manage the meaning of work.

Job Characteristic-page-001


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