Leader-Employee Gap in Verbal Transactional Leadership and Distributed Leadership: Evidence From a Randomized Field Experiment

AuthorAnne Mette Kjeldsen,Lotte Bøgh Andersen
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2023, Vol. 43(1) 80 –103
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X211039004
Leader-Employee Gap
in Verbal Transactional
Leadership and Distributed
Leadership: Evidence
From a Randomized
Field Experiment
Anne Mette Kjeldsen1
and Lotte Bøgh Andersen1
Leadership behavior only contributes to goal attainment in public organizations if
the employees perceive the behavior. Given that studies on self-other agreement
show large gaps in perceived leadership between leaders and employees, it is highly
relevant to ask how HRM-programs such as leadership training can reduce these gaps.
Based on a large randomized field experiment including 130 leaders and their 4,800
employees in the Danish municipality of Aarhus, this article compares how different
types of leadership training affect gaps in perceived leadership. Results from pre- and
post-intervention surveys show a decreased gap in leader-employee perceptions of
verbal transactional leadership, while the gap in perceived distributed leadership did
not change. This suggests that leadership training can make leaders’ and employees’
perceived leadership behaviors more aligned, but less so for employee-centered
leadership approaches such as distributed leadership.
transactional leadership, distributed leadership, field experiment, self-other agreement,
leadership training
1Aarhus University & Crown Prince Frederik Center for Public Leadership, Denmark
Corresponding Author:
Anne Mette Kjeldsen, Aarhus University & Crown Prince Frederik Center for Public Leadership,
Bartholins Allé 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark.
Email: annemette@ps.au.dk
1039004ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X211039004Review of Public Personnel AdministrationKjeldsen and Andersen
Kjeldsen and Andersen 81
Public sector leaders can play an essential role in shaping organizational success, but
their leadership behavior only contributes to goal attainment in public organizations if
the employees actually perceive it (Jacobsen & Andersen, 2015; Wright & Nishii,
2007). Leaders tend to overrate their own leadership behavior compared to their fol-
lowers’ perceptions (Fleenor et al., 2010; Lee & Carpenter, 2018), and a large gap in
perceived leadership can have negative consequences. Jacobsen and Staniok (2020),
for example, find that public employees with leaders who overrate their leadership
behavior relative to their employees are less committed to their organization while
Song and Meier (2020) find that they are also less satisfied (see also Amundsen &
Martinsen, 2014). Given the potential negative impact of a large leader-employee gap
in perceived leadership—and the oppositely positive impact of leader-employee agree-
ment (e.g., Erben et al., 2019), it is vital to find ways to reduce this gap in leader-
employee perceptions of leadership behavior.
In this regard, we argue that it is particularly relevant to study the effect of human
resource management (HRM) programs, such as systematic leadership training,
because public organizations can directly implement such programs if they are effec-
tive. Leadership training is thus a potential way for leaders to continuously develop
themselves to get through to their employees and ensure goal attainment (An et al.,
2020; Holten et al., 2015). Previous research has shown that transformational leader-
ship training of individual leaders can align leader-employee perceptions of leadership
(An et al., 2019, 2020). Through transformational leadership training, leaders get bet-
ter at formulating and communicating organizational goals and visions. As they get
inspired to adjust their behavior to fit the environment of their leadership position, this
changes the perceptions of their leadership among their employees. Yet, we do not
know whether it is possible to combine this training with other relevant leadership
behaviors and whether mandatory training where all leaders in an organization partici-
pate can reduce the gap in perceptions.
Based on panel data from a large, randomized field experiment with 130 leaders
and their 4,800 employees in the municipality of Aarhus, Denmark, this article
compares the extent to which different types of leadership training given over the
course of a year can reduce the leader-employee perceived leadership gap. In line
with the evidence on transformational leadership, all leaders in our experiment
received data-informed transformational leadership training as base training. Data-
informed transformational leadership is behaviors that seek to develop, share, and
sustain a vision based on and informed by data (Gregersen et al., 2021; Jensen
et al., 2019). This use of similar base training across treatment groups enables us to
test whether additional types of behaviors can be trained as well. We focus on two
additional leadership approaches: verbal transactional leadership and distributed
leadership training. Verbal transactional leadership is a type of transactional leader-
ship where leaders give positive, contingent feedback to employees based on their
efforts and results. Previous research shows that this type of leadership has the
potential to increase employee motivation and thus goal attainment (Andersen
et al., 2018). This even holds for leaders with a high initial level of transformational

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