The growing need for positive and empathetic leaders

To engage and retain talent, leaders must become more aware of how their mindset affects their perceptions and behaviors.

A recent Sloan Management Journal Article attributes the Great Resignation to a toxic corporate culture. Leaders rarely intend to create a toxic culture, but their mindset and leadership style can inadvertently generate this unwanted impact. One such state of mind is psychological positivity.

The benefits of psychological positivity

There is an individual difference between seeing the glass “half full” and “half empty”. Psychologists have attempted to examine how this individual difference relates to career success. In science, the tendency to see the glass half full refers to positive psychology, which further advances towards the concept of psychological capital. Hope, self-efficacy and optimism categorize individuals who possess a high level of psychological capital.

In general, research has favored positive psychology. Psychological capital has been seen as a positive resource for dealing with stress. Leadership studies have long established the benefits of growing through empowering experiences. Leadership scholars have called these challenging and challenging experiences leadership crucibles. A crucible is an unpleasant, yet transformative experience. It is a point of deep introspection that forces individuals to ask themselves who they are and what matters to them.

Individuals have different mindsets to interpret stressful situations. A difficult experience can be seen either as an opportunity for learning and growth, or as a threatening situation that causes anxiety and fear. People who possess a high level of positivity are more stress tolerant. The positive appreciation of difficult situations in turn stimulates learning and growth.

The feeling of positivity is especially important in today’s environment where leaders simultaneously face and battle different sources of stress. Leaders who possess a high level of positivity are more resilient.

The potential problem with positivity

But talented leaders need to watch out for the positivity that shows up in self-centered leaders. Positive, self-centered leaders can become less sensitive to the suffering that employees are going through.

“If stress is good for me, it’s probably good for you too.” Tel Aviv University researchers found leaders projecting their stressful state of mind onto otherswhich results in egocentrically biased judgments about the tension of others.

Self-centered positive leaders, due to their own success in the past, become accustomed to approaching a difficult situation from a more optimistic angle. They tend to underestimate the stress that employees experience in a difficult situation.

Another team of researchers from the University of Zurich further observed the stress mentality of leaders influences their health-oriented leadership behavior. In three experiments, researchers consistently found that when leaders view a difficult situation as something positive and career-enhancing, they are less likely to display considerate leadership behaviors to promote employee well-being.

Jack Welch once said, “Work-life balance doesn’t exist. This is an illustrative example of leaders who project their own mindset onto others. Jack Welch is notorious for his forced ranking in the performance review and firing the bottom 10%.

Seeing the glass half empty isn’t always bad. Basima A. Tewfik, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, found that individuals with impostor thinking are perceived more relationally effective by others.

The author explained that impostor thoughts in the workplace lead to greater perceived interpersonal efficacy by encouraging those raised in such thoughts to adopt a more others-centered orientation, which captures the extent to which one cares, cares and focuses on others. A more other-focused orientation can manifest in the form of assurances, asking questions in conversation, greater eye contact, and active listening.

Benevolent leadership drives employee engagement

Analysis of a large volume of survey data confirmed the positive impact of a leader’s benevolent behavior on team results. The survey assesses leadership style and team climate. The analysis revealed that when leaders demonstrate caring leadership behavior, team members report a high level of team identity and commitment to teamwork.

Team Identity is the sense of belonging and commitment to the team. Participation in teamwork is the shared motivation of team members to invest a high level of energy and effort for the success of the team.

The data was collected during the COVID-19 pandemic from more than 15,000 people in 3,568 teams. Benevolent and caring leadership (example items: “The leader pays a lot of attention to the personal well-being of team members” and “The leader encourages people to talk about their personal problems”) has a strong correlation and positive (r=.48, p<.001 with the identity of team items: is a lot personal loyalty to and members speak well it caring considerate leadership also positively correlated>r=.35, p<.001 with team commitment items: members do their best to make the successful and are willing sacrifices work>

Team identity and commitment foster emotional connection. Employees who are engaged with their teams are less likely to leave their organization.

Mindset-Based Leadership Programs

“People join organizations but leave managers.” Given the positive impact of caring leadership, an obvious implication is to design and implement leadership programs to drive employee engagement. Yet many employee engagement initiatives fail to produce the desired results.

Part of the reason is that these programs neglect to address the leadership mindset. The extent to which leaders exhibit caring and considerate behavior depends on their accurate perception of employee needs, which is filtered by their mindset. Leadership programs should therefore be designed to help leaders become more aware of how their mindset affects their perceptions and behaviors. Programs should help leaders:

  • Understand that people differ in their assessment of stress. A challenge can be developmental and rewarding for some people, but damaging and career impeding for others.
  • Empathize with employees who struggle with stress. Don’t jump to negative conclusions from others who seem stressed.
  • Watch for signs of employee stress and burnout instead of relying on personal guesswork or hunches.
  • Recognize that some people do not speak openly about their personal suffering. Ask them. Show interest in listening to their personal issues.
  • Build one-to-one relationships with each member of the leader’s team. Because the warning signs of health differ from individual to individual, it is important for leaders to pay attention to changes in individual employees.
  • Complement positivity with authenticity. Pretending to be positive only leads to employee cynicism.

The goal of these leadership programs is not to change the mindset of leaders to a type of glass half-empty. Instead, the goal is to build empathy while maintaining positivity. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Being positive has been linked to individual career success. The need to be positive regardless of the situation, however, could turn into toxic positivity. It can become counterproductive when leaders project their positive mindset onto employees when what they really need is help from their managers to manage stress. Ultimately, a leader in need is really a leader.

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