How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
People are motivated by reward and punishment.
Social systems work best with a clear chain of command.
When people have agreed to do a job, a part of the deal is that they cede all authority to their manager.
The prime purpose of a subordinate is to do what their manager tells them to do.
The transactional leader works through creating clear structures whereby it is clear what is required of their subordinates, and the rewards that they get for following orders. Punishments are not always mentioned, but they are also well-understood and formal systems of discipline are usually in place.
The early stage of Transactional Leadership is in negotiating the contract whereby the subordinate is given a salary and other benefits, and the company (and by implication the subordinate's manager) gets authority over the subordinate.
When the Transactional Leader allocates work to a subordinate, they are considered to be fully responsible for it, whether or not they have the resources or capability to carry it out. When things go wrong, then the subordinate is considered to be personally at fault, and is punished for their failure (just as they are rewarded for succeeding).
The transactional leader often uses management by exception, working on the principle that if something is operating to defined (and hence expected) performance then it does not need attention. Exceptions to expectation require praise and reward for exceeding expectation, whilst some kind of corrective action is applied for performance below expectation.
Whereas Transformational Leadership has more of a 'selling' style, Transactional Leadership, once the contract is in place, takes a 'telling' style.
Transactional leadership is based in contingency, in that reward or punishment is contingent upon performance.
Despite much research that highlights its limitations, Transactional Leadership is still a popular approach with many managers. Indeed, in the Leadership vs. Management spectrum, it is very much towards the management end of the scale.
The main limitation is the assumption of 'rational man', a person who is largely motivated by money and simple reward, and hence whose behavior is predictable. The underlying psychology is Behaviorism, including the Classical Conditioning of Pavlov and Skinner's Operant Conditioning. These theories are largely based on controlled laboratory experiments (often with animals) and ignore complex emotional factors and social values.
In practice, there is sufficient truth in Behaviorism to sustain Transactional approaches. This is reinforced by the supply-and-demand situation of much employment, coupled with the effects of deeper needs, as in Maslow's Hierarchy. When the demand for a skill outstrips the supply, then Transactional Leadership often is insufficient, and other approaches are more effective.