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Scott DeRue
  Scott DeRue

Overwhelmed, Overloaded

4/1/2009 --

Study shows there may be limits to the trial-by-fire method of developing leadership skills.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—New research from Ross Professor Scott DeRue sheds light on some commonly held wisdom about how to develop leadership skills on the job. It's an issue that's become increasingly acute in the business world as executives are asked to do more with less.

Companies invest billions of dollars a year developing leaders by using outside training programs and on-the-job work experience. Previous research and common practice has suggested that the more challenging the on-the-job experience, the better.

Not true, according to DeRue's latest paper "Developing Leaders via Experience." Eventually, the value of a challenging job -- at least in terms of building leadership skills -- reaches a maximum point and begins to tail off. After studying 225 job experiences across 60 managers, DeRue and co-author Ned Wellman found a clear pattern of diminishing returns. Wellman is a second-year doctoral student at Ross.

The study is one of the first to examine the impact of work experiences on leadership skill development and is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It can be used as a guide for companies seeking to prepare the next generation of leaders.

"There is such a thing as too much stretch and too much challenge for individuals -- the key is figuring out what the optimal level of challenge is for each individual," DeRue says.

But the study also shows that support mechanisms, such as regular feedback, make people less susceptible to the negative effects of strenuous on-the-job challenges. The results show managers can take a number of steps to offset diminishing returns.

First, differences in how individuals frame their experiences play a big role in how quickly employees reach a saturation point. Simply taking into account how an employee perceives a new challenge can influence the outcome and the value of that on-the-job experience. Managers can help employees put an opportunity in the right context.

"The difference is between the person thinking that it's an opportunity to learn and develop or thinking, 'I'm in a tough position and I have to show the boss I can perform,'" DeRue says. "The idea of proving that you can perform and avoiding mistakes at all costs is actually harmful. As a manager, you can influence how your employee frames this experience."

During the job experience, managers should give substantive feedback and surround the person with the support needed to get through the challenge. So companies need to build formal and informal support systems, DeRue says.

"If you are in an organization that has extensive feedback mechanisms in place, so that you get feedback from your supervisor or peers on a regular basis, our data suggests you are less susceptible to this idea of too much stretch, too much challenge," he says.

In fact, DeRue says he was surprised at how much these social support mechanisms improved people's ability to learn from extremely challenging work experiences. There may be several factors at work here, he notes. For one, he believes there's great value in learning from the people around you. That's not a formal process, but he thinks that observing and role modeling others helps develop leadership skills.

"Through my interviews in this study, it became very clear that there's a social component to leadership development," DeRue says. "On the empirical side of this study, we weren't able to capture that. But I do think the social learning component is highly understudied. That's something we are exploring in follow-up research."

—Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,