School of Management’s Francis Yammarino uncovers important lessons in leadership
The importance of focusing on the people side of business
Francis Yammarino remembers making some interesting observations of the groups and teams he encountered as a teller at the bank he worked in many years ago.
The bank tellers and their supervisors didn’t always interact harmoniously, he’d observe, while he also tried to notice ways he and fellow tellers interacted with various customers who approached the counter. Just for fun, Yammarino liked to make predictions in his head about how different interactions might unfold.
Sometimes, he could predict exactly how a person would act; and other times, not at all.
Over the course of 37 years at Binghamton University’s School of Management, Yammarino’s fascination with leadership dynamics and organizational behavior has flourished beyond making stray observations behind a bank counter into focused research strategies for how to apply these scientific concepts toward advancing positive connections in the workplace.
These can be very technical concepts to test in research, he says, but they translate into universal practices people encounter every day.
“Everybody tries to focus on the technical side of the job, the details of doing the work and the skills to get that done, but that’s only going to get you so far,” Yammarino says. “You’ve got to focus on the people side of the business, get to know your people and interact with them in a mutually beneficial way. If you can do that, you’ll be an incredibly successful leader.”
Yammarino’s career at the University began in 1985, as an assistant professor of management; his primary teaching focus for the past decade has been doctoral students. He has become a world-renowned researcher in the field of leadership, a SUNY distinguished professor, and the director of the Bernard M. and Ruth R. Bass Center for Leadership Studies (CLS), which has teamed up with the likes of NASA and the U.S. Army and Navy on research projects.
When COVID-19 forced a remote workplace for many worldwide, it was also an opportunity for Yammarino to learn more about how the pandemic had promoted conversations about what could or couldn’t be accomplished through a remote or hybrid work schedule. For some employers, it meant re-evaluating certain aspects of how business was conducted.
Yammarino began at the University before office computers had entered the mainstream — he didn’t get an office computer until 1987. Unless he had class or a meeting planned, even in those days, he preferred working from home whenever possible.
In some cases, when virtual meetings became a daily practice, working from home allowed some employees to succeed. They could be just as productive, or even more productive, without certain distractions. Other workers, such as those who typically required more hands-on supervision or those with children and other family members around, encountered more challenges in working remotely.
Yammarino says using the lessons from adjusting work schedules will be critical for effective leadership in the years ahead.
“Leadership basically comes down to an interaction between leaders and followers, and up until recently, that interaction has primarily been face to face,” Yammarino says. “But if you’ve never had that experience beforehand, the nature of the interactions becomes very different, and that becomes more of a challenge in figuring out how to read people.”
Yammarino’s career in the University has allowed him to apply concepts like this to about 100 research projects over the years. In 2018, he participated in an international study that explored how different leadership styles affect the job performance of subordinates.
The study involved nearly 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military and about 200 adults working full time in the U.S.
Leaders who focused on completing tasks with little consideration of subordinates’ well-being tended to cause a negative impact on job performance, the study found. Positive impacts came from leaders who made subordinates’ well-being a priority, but the greatest positive impacts resulted when leaders were able to strike a balance between focusing on task completion and well-being.
Yammarino also participated in research published in 1997 that questioned whether managers see themselves how others see them, to study the implications on human resource management. This resulted in some varied findings depending on the leaders’ outlook on their own work.
“The critical thing is the discrepancy between how leaders see themselves versus how other people see them,” Yammarino says. “The smaller the discrepancy, the more likely the relationship and interaction will be better. And the bigger discrepancies meant more of a challenge to have positive leadership interactions.”
When the discrepancies aren’t much, he says, that could make it easier for employers to find solutions such as training programs or other learning opportunities to improve how the managers and employees can work together.
For years, leadership research largely focused on managers and how they treat their collective group of employees, Yammarino says. But after the 1970s, there came to be a better understanding that leaders don’t always treat everyone in their teams the same way.
“Some people are really good performers, they have good skills and abilities, and others have lesser skills and abilities, so you’re naturally going to treat them differently by giving them different jobs, assignments or learning opportunities to help them all improve,” Yammarino says.
“If you can master the skill of understanding — no matter if you’re the boss or the employee — what makes the other person tick and what motivates that person,” he says, “you’ll be a successful leader whether you’re in a formal leadership role or not.”