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Don't Challenge Before You Train- That's a Recipe for Burnout!

Today's economy has forced business executives to do more with less. But when it comes to preparing leaders for everyday challenges within their company, Dr. Stephen Courtright, an assistant professor of management at the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, says executives should not skimp on costly training.

For his dissertation that earned the 2012 Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Outstanding Dissertation Award, co-sponsored by the FIU Center for Leadership and the Network for Leadership Scholars, Courtright spent four months surveying a group of more than 150 managers and their subordinates at a Fortune 500 company. Courtright concluded that giving managers challenging job assignments instead of training doesn't always work.

"You have to prepare people through training, which builds leaders' confidence," said Dr. Courtright, who completed his dissertation in Spring 2012 at the University of Iowa's Henry B. Tippie College of Business. "Once that confidence is built, then you give them a challenging job assignment."

The problem is that given the high cost, many companies opt to give challenging job assignments to employees to build leadership instead of spending the money on training - a trend that ignites burnout in some employees, Dr. Courtright concluded. He defines burnout as a prolonged state of psychological strain and depletion of energy resources characterized by emotional exhaustion and worse, cynicism.

Training Builds Confidence, vital for "transformative leadership."

Training builds confidence, which is vital to the development of what Courtright labels a "transformative leader," the type of leader who can take on any challenge.

"Some say we need to do away with training," Dr Courtright said. "I say not really. It's just a matter of what the training is intended for. You may use training to build leaders' confidence, and then use the challenging job assignment to build on-the-job leadership skills. Then you'll really see leaders develop, because challenging assignments allow leaders to feel engaged and thereby be effective."

For his dissertation titled "Fired Up or Burned Out? Exploring the Effects of Leadership Challenge Demands on Leadership Behaviors through Engagement and Burnout," Dr. Courtright surveyed the Fortune 500 company managers twice and asked how engaged they felt in their work and the type of challenging assignments they were currently being given. He then asked the subordinates whether their managers stimulated creativity, served as a role model and built effective interpersonal relationships, or whether the managers retreated from their leadership duties.

He found that there are three types of leadership behavior:

• Transformational Leadership: When a manager is ready to take on a challenging job assignment, they are engaged and motivate the employees around them. This stimulates a positive work environment.

• Abusive Supervision: When a leader isn't confident in their ability to handle a challenging assignment, they burn out and can become demeaning and abusive toward subordinates. 

• Passive Leadership: This is another negative leadership style indicative of burn out where the manager withdraws from their leadership duties. "This type of behavior is just as detrimental as verbal abuse for the subordinates," Dr. Courtright explained. "When a leader is feeling emotional depletion, subordinates began having health complaints and experiencing family problems."

"How do we get leaders to behave in a certain style? It's a far more important issue than saying well this is the leadership style that works," he said.

If you want to see transformative leaders develop within your organization, Dr. Courtright suggests using a balance of leadership training and challenging assignments. These leaders can then have a positive influence on subordinates.

"For the average individual, the leader makes all the difference in the world," he said. "Leaders can have a really good impact or really make life miserable for someone."