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Lead Your Team Leadership

Hiring a Leader? Don't Choose a Conformist

Hiring a Leader? Don't Choose a Conformist
Credit: Maradon 33/Shutterstock

Company performance improves when businesses have CEOs whose leadership styles differ from the companies' organizational cultures, according to a study recently published in The Journal of Applied Psychology.

Chad Hartnell, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at Georgia State University, said too many consistencies between CEO leadership and culture create redundancies.

"Leaders who are culture conformists are thus ineffective," Hartnell said in a statement. "CEOs who lead in a manner different from the culture benefit companies, because they provide resources to the organization that the culture does not."

The study's authors defined organizational culture as the shared values and norms that drive employee behavior. Typically, there are two main types of organizational cultures: task-oriented and relationship-oriented. [See Related Story: 5 Simple Scientific Ways to Improve Company Culture]

In a task-oriented culture employees focus more externally on problems such as anticipating customers' needs and monitoring competitors' behaviors. Relationship-oriented cultures encourage employees to focus internally, on issues like coordination, participation and communication.

"Similarities between leadership and culture can produce a myopic focus on things that have worked in the past while precluding employees from acquiring other resources or processes that could enhance success," Hartnell said.

The researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing data collected from 119 CEOs and 337 top management-team members in 119 organizations in the U.S. software and hardware industries. The study's authors discovered that businesses are most effective when CEO leadership style and organizational culture differ, and that CEOs who adopt leadership styles similar to those of their organizations' cultures harm firm performance.

Researchers pointed to former Delta CEO Richard Anderson as an example of leadership style differing from company culture. The authors said Anderson's task leadership complemented the airline's relationship-focused culture, which allowed the company to capitalize on opportunities to adapt to rapidly changing market conditions.

"Delta's relationship-focused culture enabled employees to integrate their efforts and execute on the organization's strategic direction," Hartnell said. "Taken together, differences between CEO leadership and company culture position organizations for financial success."

While differences in leadership style and culture are important, they can backfire if the CEO takes an oppositional or confrontational approach. Leaders who challenge or discard every practice that has worked in the past create uncertainty, ambiguity and skepticism among employees and are typically met with resistance and resentment.

"Leaders must search diligently for what isn't currently being handled by the culture and fill in the gap," Hartnell said. "They should adopt a leadership style that builds upon the positive aspects of the existing culture, contributing to the culture without undermining it."

The study was co-authored by Lisa Schurer Lambert, an associate professor at Georgia State University; Angelo Kinicki, a professor at Arizona State University; Mel Fugate, an associate professor at the University of South Australia; and Patricia Doyle Corner, a professor at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer with more than 20 years of media experience. A graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff as a senior writer. Currently, Chad covers a wide range of B2B products and services, including business phone systems, time and attendance systems, payroll services, and conference call services. Before joining Business News Daily and business.com, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. Chad's first book, "How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business," was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.