Four powerful lessons leaders can give their employees
“Leaders are dealers in hope”. Thus, spake Napoléon Bonaparte. I’ve always liked this quote because it very simply captures the emotional dimension of leadership. The challenge of winning the hearts and minds of those that follow. No easy task. Especially when things are moving fast and/or times are tough.
Yes indeed, leading is a tough gig. Visioning, formulating strategy (and explaining it), anticipating problems, contingency planning, structuring the workforce (and delegating to it) and then – to cap it all off – there’s the constant need to engender a positive, this-can-be-done attitude in those tasked to make it all happen.
And there lieth the emotional dimension, the very hope the Little Corporal (Napoleon) was referring to. An optimistic state of mind that comes from caring about a common goal and feeling it can be attained. A feeling state that – it appears – is best achieved when leaders can “show-up” well in interactions with their followers.
Behold the boss!
Social learning theorists have long argued that we learn about appropriate behaviours and norms by observing others, particularly those who are credible. In organisations that do a good job of recruiting and internally promoting people, those with the most credibility are probably leading. This vicarious learning gives leader-follower interactions added importance. Why? Because what employees hear leaders say is only part of what they retain. The other part is, of course, non-verbal. But that’s no great surprise. Behavioural scientists have long known that non-verbal communication represents a big slice of the total communication mix, even if science is still to work out the exact size of that slice.
The contagions of leadership
Over the past few years, I’ve been struck by the attention researchers have given to the “trickle-down”, “ripple” or “radiation” effects of leadership. Typically, these studies focus on how employees experience leaders in a variety of work situations, and what the downstream consequences of these experiences are (positive and negative). Take these four examples:
In a 2016 U.S. study, researchers investigated the impact of sleep deprivation on charismatic leadership. They found that sleep was important for charisma, and that leaders who were sleep deprived were subsequently rated as being less emotionally connected, genuine and inspiring when giving a speech, compared to well-rested leaders.
Interestingly, it was also found that sleep deprived followers were less inclined to rate leaders as charismatic, as a result of experiencing less positive emotion. As such, the researchers concluded that inadequate sleep may render one “too tired to inspire or be inspired”, suggesting that the impact of poor sleep may be both individual and systemic.
Leader listening behaviours have also been the focus of research efforts. A recent German study got leaders to rate how well they listened, and employees to rate how well they felt listened to. Whilst the ratings correlated strongly, it was found that good listening was linked to less emotional exhaustion and turnover intention amongst employees, and more organisational citizenship behaviour.
As such, the question “is my boss really listening to me?” has huge significance, as findings like this suggest basic competence in listening is a no-cost driver of organisational engagement. And of HOPE, as employees did not feel inclined to leave (an indication of hopelessness), nor succumb to other related ills (like exhaustion).
The study of ethical leadership has grown steadily in the past 20 years, in response to many episodes of corporate scandal and management misconduct. In a 2019 study, Chinese researchers studied whether responsible leadership – defined by an expanded focus on stakeholders and broader society – can trickle-down through an organisation to prevent behaviours that might benefit an organisation at the expense of the greater good (i.e., unethical pro-organisational behaviour).
They found it did. Not surprisingly, the transmission of ethical behaviour occurred most strongly when leader values aligned well with employee values, providing a justification for recruiting staff with desired morality.
Increased telecommuting comes with a hard edge. The reliance on smartphones for work has created, for some, a pressure to remain perpetually online. Ready to respond quickly when called upon. As a result, psychological detachment from work has become harder.
In 2019, a research team in German investigated this issue from the employees’ perspective. They wanted to know, does a leader’s ability or inability to detach effect their subordinate’s ability to do likewise? Yup, it does! The work strain symptoms of subordinates were related to the degree of success their boss was having managing their own work-life divide (e.g., by not messaging out of hours).
A clearer view?
Findings like these support the view that leaders have a profound effect on followers. Whether it be via close contact or remote observation, their influence on employee’s can be wide-ranging. This can include how much positive emotion they experience (e.g., inspiration), how much negative emotion they experience (e.g., exhaustion), how pro-socially they act (e.g., ethical behaviour), and/or how they balance work and life (e.g., psychological detachment).
And how much can we glean from this? A little, but not a lot. The relationships explored in these studies are highly complex, and no one study can consider all that needs to be considered. So, we should take findings like these with a good pinch of salt. They are contributions to knowledge that build over time.
However, they do give leaders another reason to stop and reflect. Reflect on how they manage themselves, and how that pertains to others. As systems science continues to tell us, no one of us is an island. We impact others and other impact us. To the extent that we can manage ourselves well, our impact is likely to be constructive and beneficial.
Live well. Do well.
This brings some basics back into sharp relief. Actions leaders can take to ensure they show-up well with those that follow. Routines and rituals (like good sleep habits) that can generate the energy needed to maintain focused attention (for active listening), perspective-taking (for ethical conduct), and self-discipline (for detachment from work).