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Leadership’s role in promoting eco-friendly behavior in hospitality

Eco Friendly Leadership

A study by Hong Kong Polytechnic University reveals leadership’s crucial role in encouraging pro-environmental behaviors among hospitality employees.

As the carbon footprint of the hospitality and tourism industry continues to grow, increasing attention is being paid to how employees can help mitigate the industry’s environmental impact. In a timely study with far-reaching implications for the sustainability of hospitality and tourism, Dr Lisa Gao and Professor Mimi Li of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM) at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, working with co-authors, ask how leaders can foster employees’ eco-friendly behaviors. Their insightful theoretical analysis and empirical results provide invaluable guidance for senior managers in hospitality corporations. Above all, they show that optimizing leadership might be more effective than compensation programs in motivating employees to engage in green practices.

Compared with heavily polluting industries such as the petroleum and chemical industries, hospitality and tourism have traditionally received much less attention from environmental conservationists. “Nevertheless”, the researchers tell us, “recent studies have shown that the tourism and hospitality industry is also a major contributor to carbon emissions and that its rapid development is harming the natural environment”. With increasingly pressing concern about the industry’s environmental impact, scholars and practitioners have turned their attention to employees as agents in implementing corporate pro-environmental practices.

Drawing particular interest are employee pro-environmental behaviours (PEBs). Such behaviours encompass a range of eco-friendly activities undertaken by employees in the workplace, “such as learning and thinking about the environment, developing and applying ideas to reduce the company’s negative effects on the physical environment, developing green products and processes, and recycling as well as reusing”. How can such behaviours best be promoted and maintained?

Leaders have a substantial impact on employees’ behaviour”. say the researchers. “Therefore, interest in the effects of leadership style, such as charismatic leadership, ethical leadership and environmentally specific transformational leadership, on employees’ PEBs is growing”. Nevertheless, there remain three major gaps in this research, which the authors set out to fill.

First, the influence of leadership on employees’ PEBs has received surprisingly little attention in hospitality and tourism, even though the industry’s dynamism and increasingly institutionalised nature make it an important playing field for transformational leaders and transactional leaders.

Second, the link between leadership style and employee PEBs is rarely considered in relation to work-related individual characteristics. “Although employee PEBs fall into the domain of extra-role behaviours”, note the researchers, “the decision to participate is still highly correlated with one’s work-related characteristics, such as career plans and strategies”.

Third, the limited research on the work-related mechanisms underlying this relationship has focused on cognitive factors, neglecting employees’ affective (emotional) responses. This is a significant omission. After all, the researchers tell us, “hospitality employees are required to perform not only intellectual and physical work but also intense emotional labor”.

To fill these gaps, the researchers posed the following question. “How do transformational and transactional leadership affect employees’ PEBs in the tourism and hospitality industry, and what roles do work regulatory focus and emotional exhaustion play in this process?” Moving away from previous studies’ focus on the roles of corporate social responsibility and green human resources management in fostering employees’ PEBs, the authors instead examined the influence of “transformational and transactional leadership, two effective leadership styles in the tourism and hospitality industry”.

They hypothesized that transformational leaders promote employees’ PEBs through their inspiring and personalized approach to leadership. “Subordinates are expected to be more proactive toward PEB”, the researchers explain, “which, though not part of their responsibilities, has a positive effect on the organization”. In contrast, transactional leaders do not motivate employees to engage in PEBs, because they “build relationships with employees exclusively to exchange short-term financial benefits”.

Drawing on regulatory focus theory and conservation of resources theory, the researchers further posited that work regulatory focus – which leads employees to work either to seek pleasure (promotion focus) or to avoid pain (prevention focus) – mediates the relationship between leadership style and employees’ PEBs. Transformational leaders induce a work promotion focus in employees, while transactional leadership induces a work prevention focus. “Promotion-focused employees with their optimism and resilience will not be afraid of potential objections and will insist on participating in PEBs that are positive for the organization in the long term,” say the researchers, “while prevention-focused employees will fear being involved in PEBs.”

Finally, Gao, Li and colleagues proposed another mediator of the influence of leadership style on employees’ PEBs: emotional exhaustion. “Transformational leaders can effectively compensate for the emotional depletion associated with intense emotional labor in the tourism and hospitality industry,” the researchers note. Reducing employees’ emotional exhaustion can foster their PEBs. In contrast, transactional leadership “makes employees feel deprived of their autonomy and resources”, say the researchers, “thus exacerbating emotional exhaustion”. This in turn discourages employees from engaging in PEBs.

To empirically test their hypotheses, the authors’ first step was to distribute a questionnaire to frontline employees and junior managers from 42 tourism and hospitality organizations in the Yangtze River Delta region of China. The questionnaire was designed to measure the managers’ leadership style (transactional or transformational) and their subordinates’ work regulatory focus (prevention or promotion), emotional exhaustion and PEBs.

The questionnaire responses were subjected to rigorous statistical testing, with two distinct strategies used to test the robustness of the findings. Almost all of the researchers’ hypotheses were supported. “Transformational leadership had a significant positive effect on employee PEBs”, report the authors, “and transactional leadership had a significant negative effect”. Also as predicted, work regulatory focus significantly mediated the relationship between both transformational and transactional leadership and employee PEBs. Emotional exhaustion significantly mediated the influence of transformational leadership on PEBs.

The authors also found that work regulatory focus and emotional exhaustion played a chain-mediating role. “A distinct personality system consisting of work regulatory focus and emotional exhaustion mediates the relationship between leadership style and employee PEB”, the researchers report. This was consistent with their hypothesis, based on cognitive–affective personality system (CAPS) theory, that leadership style induces in employees different combinations of work regulatory focus and level of emotional exhaustion. “These distinct personality systems later enable employees to make critical decisions regarding PEBs”.

These findings have critical theoretical and practical implications. “Our study’s thorough assessment of leader characteristics in the tourism and hospitality industry based on CAPS theory”, say the researchers, “suggests that the unique personality system that combines employees’ cognitive and affective responses to leadership styles is a key determinant of their participation in PEB”. Therefore, scholars should pay more attention to the cognitive–emotional dimension of various employee behavioural challenges in the tourism and hospitality industry.

The study also contributes to the literature by demonstrating the relationship between work regulatory focus/emotional exhaustion and employee PEBs. Interestingly, the finding that emotional exhaustion did not mediate the relationship between transactional leadership and PEB may reflect the high power distance between leaders and employees in Eastern cultures, thus shedding new light on a unique quality of the Eastern workplace.

Practically, the researchers’ findings offer guidance for the daily management practices of tourism and hospitality managers. To promote employees’ PEBs, managers should emphasise a vision of the future and support employees in achieving their goals. Organisations should focus on candidates with transformational leadership traits when recruiting managers. In addition, the researchers note, “hospitality corporations may consider offering relevant leadership workshops to improve leaders’ ability to deal with negative employee emotions and providing spaces and activities for employees to reduce workplace stress”.

Employees could play a critical role in reducing the carbon footprint of the hospitality and tourism industry and helping society tackle the ever more severe problem of climate change. This timely study sheds light on the specific and nuanced mechanisms underlying the influence of hospitality and tourism leaders on their subordinates’ eco-friendly activities in China and beyond. Their research opens up new pathways for scholars and practitioners to make hospitality a greener and more sustainable industry of the future.

George Diamantopoulos
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George, in his capacity as an intern, diligently oversees the flow of news, assists in the publication of content, and delves into the strategies of social media distribution. He is currently pursuing his studies in Business Administration at the Athens University of Economics and Business.