Clear leadership and expectations has direct impacts on worker health.  Effective leadership increases employee morale, resilience and trust, and decreases employee frustration and conflict.

Effective leadership is an important aspect of success within any organization. A critical aspect of people leaders’ roles is to ensure that those on their team are clear on what is expected of them. 

Clear leadership and expectations is present in an environment in which leadership is effective and provides sufficient support that helps workers know what they need to do, explains how their work contributes to the organization, and discusses the nature and expected outcomes of impending changes. There are many types of leadership styles, each of which impacts psychological safety and health in different ways. 

Styles of Leadership

One widely accepted categorization of leadership styles includes the following:

  • Instrumental
    • Focuses primarily on producing outcomes, with little attention paid to the “big picture,” the psychosocial dynamics within the organization, and unfortunately, the individual workers.
  • Transactional
    • Focuses on results, conforms to the existing structure of an organization and measures success according to that organization’s system of reward and penalties.
  • Transformational
    • Transformational leaders are seen as change agents who motivate their followers to do more than what is expected. They are concerned with long-term objectives and transmit a sense of mission, vision, and purpose. They have charisma, give individual consideration to their workers, stimulate intellectual capabilities in others, and inspire workers. 

Of these, transformational leadership is considered the most powerful.

Why is Clear Leadership & Expectations Important?

Clear leadership and expectations has direct impacts on worker health.  Effective leadership increases employee morale, resilience and trust, and decreases employee frustration and conflict. Skilled leadership leads to individuals being 40% more likely to be in the highest category of job well-being, a 27% reduction in sick leave, and a 46% reduction in early retirements with disability pensions. 

A leader who demonstrates a commitment to maintaining their own physical and psychological health can influence the health of employees (e.g., via positively impacting sickness, presenteeism, and absenteeism rates), as well as the health of the organization as a whole (e.g., in terms of vigour, vitality, and productivity).

What happens when clear leadership and expectations are lacking in the workplace?

Leaders who are more instrumental in their approach (rather than transformational) are more likely to find staff health complaints including general feelings of malaise, irritability and nervousness. Similarly, leaders who do not demonstrate visible concern for their own physical and psychological health set a negative example for their staff and can undermine the legitimacy of any organizational program, policy and/or service intended to support employees. Middle managers are at greater risk due to the fact that they must be leaders and be led simultaneously. This role conflict can lead to feelings of powerlessness and stress.

An organization with clear leadership and explicit expectations would be able to state that:

  • in their jobs, workers know what they are expected to do; 
  • leadership in the workplace is effective; 
  • workers are informed about important changes at work in a timely manner; 
  • supervisors provide helpful feedback to workers on their expected and actual performance; and 
  • the organization provides clear, effective communication. 

How to Improve Clear Leadership and Expectations 

When it comes to clear leadership and job expectations, fostering communication is incredibly important. This means emphasizing the importance of having leaders who have an emotionally intelligent leadership style. This also means regularly fostering opportunities for open and honest communication between people leaders and staff, as well as check-ins that ensure a clear understanding of not only a worker’s personal role, tasks, and responsibilities at work – but also how their work contributes to the organization overall. 

It’s also important to provide people leaders with training opportunities to build and improve on their communication skills, including emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills. This also means orienting new leaders to their role by ensuring they understand the organizations’ culture and values.

Improving Communication in the Workplace

Here are some concrete ways to regularly enhance communication in the workplace:

  • Keep your staff informed on what is happening in the organization through regular newsletters, bulletins, intranet, or other communication-channel updates;
  • Ensure there is regular, open and helpful communication between managers and direct reports, particularly during times of change and uncertainty;
  • Hold regular staff meetings and ensure management attends; and
  • Strive for direct, accurate and timely communication from senior management, particularly about difficult decisions (e.g., layoffs, terminations).

Put These Principles Into Action

People leaders play a critical role in terms of promoting organizational psychological health and safety (PH&S). The Psychological Safety Leader Assessment (PSLA) is an assessment tool developed by Dr. Joti Samra, that helps individual leaders and organizations assess leadership skills, strategies and approaches as they align with the requirements of the CSA National Standard. There are 5 key areas of leadership that promote workplace PH&S: Communication and Collaboration, Social Intelligence, Problem Solving and Conflict Management, Security and Safety, and Fairness and Integrity.

Read more about psychologically safe leadership and the five domains here

It’s also important to think critically about the current leadership in your organization; are leaders communicating effectively with their teams? What areas are current leaders succeeding in, and where are there areas for improvement? If you’re unsure, ask. Engaging with workers about how they feel about their roles at work and whether or not they feel clear about expectations, as well as their thoughts about how well leaders communicate with them demonstrates commitment to creating a psychologically healthy and safe work environment. The Psychologically Safe Leadership Assessment also allows leaders to gather input from employees under their supervision about objective observations of strategies using the Psychologically Safe Leader Assessment: Employee Feedback (PSLA-E) version. In some cases, the differences in results are related to a lack of effective communication about leader strategies rather than a lack of effective strategies, and can help direct efforts for improvement.

Final Thoughts on Clear Leadership – Ongoing Improvement

Remember that it’s important to continually improve when it comes to leadership in the workplace. So, it’s important to engage in ongoing training and coaching for people leaders, maintain regular communication throughout the organization, and continue to engage with the process of proactively resolving any issues that arise. 

One way to continue to improve communication between people leaders and workers is to have regular check-ins. This gives workers the opportunity to provide feedback to their leaders and clarify expectations, as well as for leaders to provide feedback on their direct reports’ expected and actual performance. Having these check-ins scheduled regularly is the perfect opportunity to provide clarity and make improvements. 

Clear Leadership and Expectations is psychosocial factor 3 from the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S) in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 – Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace). For more information, see also Guarding Minds at Work (Samra et al.).