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The Secret Sauce for Successful Leadership May Surprise You

By: Tara Cousineau
Published: May 29, 2018
leader giving a presentation

Misery loves company.  And your company? Well, it might foster more misery than you care to admit. Maybe you’ve found kindred spirits huddled around the water cooler, or caught the raised eyebrow of a co-worker at a meeting, or exchanged complaints with your workout buddy at the gym.  Yes, misery abounds in the workplace and you are not alone. (Hardly comforting!)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step in changing culture starts with noticing that there is a problem in the first place. The traditional emphasis on profit and productivity is not working for the wellbeing of the global workforce, as reported by Global Happiness Policy Report. Granted, people with work are generally happy (or relieved) to have a job, but most are decidedly unhappy.  

One interesting approach to assessing people’s daily experiences are studies that tap momentary wellbeing using smartphones. A group of researchers in England created a survey app called Mappiness. It asks respondents to record their wellbeing via smartphones at random points in time on a given day. For instance, a person hears the telltale ding and answers a short set of questions stating how happy, how relaxed, and how awake he or she feels, if they are alone or with others, and what they were doing from a list of 40 activities. It’s a pretty good list including child care, walking, watching T.V., smoking, shopping, doing errands, commuting, studying, and making love, among others. Results of tens of thousand people and over a million data points since 2010, found that the activity of work (or being at your job) is ranked lower than any other of the 39 activities being sampled, with the exception of being sick in bed. Being at work is almost as miserable as having the flu. It has also been observed that the worst times of all seem to be when people are with their boss.

Why is being at work at the bottom of the barrel? Part of the answer to why working is negatively correlated with happiness, is the anxiety people feel at work. It seems – perhaps not surprisingly –  that people are stressed out at work primarily in relationship to bosses and managers. This is in line with other evidence showing that about 50% of US adults who have left their job did so in order to get away from their manager. Many employees feel disrespected by their managers, don’t feel safe or secure in the workplace, and the resulting lack of trust and high levels of stress contribute to high turnover rates and ill health.

On the flip side, employees who have good relationships with management tend to be more satisfied with their jobs. It makes sense. After all, who wants a boss from hell? The problem among employees is, “They quit. Go across the street. And what do they usually find at their new company? Same sh*t, different business card.”

The Secret Ingredients: Soft Skills, Strong Leadership

Increasingly, there are signs that successful leaders are those people who have cultivated enduring soft skills, including qualities of caring, sharing, empathy, self/other awareness, emotional regulation, humor, impulse control, and focus. These attributes often fall under the umbrella of emotional intelligence or what might be dubbed “the caring advantage.” These are skills you might want to see in a kindergartner but they are in fact life skills—and they take practice. These soft skills are the ingredients that build and sustain resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from stressful experiences or setbacks.

Recent work in the leadership field is showing that this caring advantage is an essential part of successful leadership. Rasmus Hougaard is the managing director of The Potential Project. His team has culled data that shines a glaring light on a global leadership crisis. In spite of $46 billion that is spent on leadership training annually, there is much suffering in organizations. For instance, the authors cite data that only 13% of the global workforce is engaged, 82% of employees think their leaders aren’t doing a good job, and 35% of employees would forgo a pay raise to see a leader fired.

Hougaard and his co-author Jacqueline Carter, have assembled the results of The Mind of the Leader project with Harvard Business Review based on surveys with 35,000 managers, and interviews with 250 C-level executives from all over the world. The upshot? Leadership development has it backwards. Managers are incessantly drilled on how to drive the bottom line, with an intense focus on external factors to the exclusion of other essential skills. If leaders don’t have ability to manage themselves first, the authors contend, they are missing integral qualities in effective leadership. Here are the top 3 key qualities of an impactful leader that they’ve discovered from the research:

  • Mindfulness vs. Distraction. Leaders who are present know how to pay attention and stay focused.
  • Selflessness vs. Self-interest.  Leaders who learn to get out of their own way are better able take into account the perspectives and experiences of others.
  • Compassion vs. Corruption. Compassionate leaders are not naive or weak but are wise, purposeful, caring and kind.

Importantly, kind leaders are not pushovers. They embody the soft skills while using their intelligence, experience, and wisdom. They connect their heads with their hearts. But this can be hard to do given the rating and ranking mentality that has gripped how most people engage. “The state of politics around the world may have your employees stuck in unhealthy discussion and social media battles. With some patience and compassion, this could be a teachable moment to bring out the humanity in your team.” When leaders cultivate soft skills, the harvest reaped at work is more likely to boost the bottom line over time. It’s really about the long game.

The reality is we can influence the communities we are in by purposely honing one’s  “soft” skills. Some ways to shift the workplace mindset include being caring, practicing mindfulness and deep listening, supporting wellness at work, and engaging in social mission activities all provide connection and purpose. Importantly, such engagement produces positive emotions and enhanced productivity. The upswell in positivity will easily spread. That’s because attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors amplify across in social networks, and the workplace is certainly a network.

The question is: What do you want to ignite at work?

This is a companion article to a previous guest post by Dr. Cousineau, Making the Virtuous Viral at Work.

Dr. Tara Cousineau’s new book is “The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World. Drawing on research in psychology and neuroscience, this book will help teach you the benefits of practicing kindness. Check it out today!

About the Author

Tara Cousineau

Psychologist, Research Scientist, Author

Clinical psychologist at Harvard University, research scientist and author of The Kindness Cure, specializing in positive coping strategies.

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