In recent decades, researchers have had the opportunity to observe leaders across the globe as they dealt with economic crises, nuclear disasters, oil spills, massive business failures and other large-scale calamities.
Data collected by business schools, universities and employers suggests that the behaviour of leaders has a considerable impact on both the well-being and performance of employees.
Leaders faced with trying circumstances often focus heavily on demonstrating their competence. They focus on gathering the best financial and economic data and analysing it in order to create a plan of action. They communicate their aims and then drive employees and their organisations towards their goals.
However, studies strongly suggests that employees respond not just to displays of competence but also to demonstrations of benevolence. In fact, research first conducted by scientists led by Susan Fiske at Princeton University suggests that all humans – not just employees – respond universally to warmth, compassion and the sense that others genuinely care.
As a leader, then, do not focus only on the rational parts of the projects and challenges before you. Accept that your people are human beings who are perhaps anxious, sad or scared. In your communication, aim to demonstrate both your competence and benevolence. Get away from the business jargon to communicate your concern for them. Be willing to show your human side – maybe even to share to a degree your worries and feelings. Many leaders believe they must appear strong; however, research in fact tells us that employees often respond more positively to leaders they see as vulnerable and authentic.
Effective leaders also deliberately seek out opposing points of view. It can be easy to surround yourself – perhaps inadvertently – with advisers who have similar backgrounds, sets of values and attitudes to you. But the key to putting together robust plans is to seek out dissent – to look for the holes in your arguments and the weak spots in your proposals.
Finally, effective leaders tend to ask others for feedback on their own effectiveness as leaders. Rather than assume that you are doing a good job as a leader, be sure to seek out constructive criticism from people around you on how you are perceived. Yes, you may be doing a good job – but in what ways could you alter your style to do an even better one? Are you coming across as both competent and benevolent?
One trap that leaders fall into is asking for feedback only from advisers who may offer mainly flattery and positive feedback. If you truly wish to improve your effectiveness in difficult times, ask for comments from those who are more able and willing to point out your flaws.
Unproductive and productive worry
Irrespective of whether you manage others or not, make a conscious effort to look after your own mental health. Psychologists distinguish between unproductive worry and productive worry. For example, simply worrying, speculating or discussing what horrors could befall you would be considered unproductive worry. So would spending hours scrolling through social media reading posts and stories from sources of questionable reputation. Dwelling overly long on the things that you cannot influence is also considered unproductive.
In contrast, productive worry is more about analysing a situation, identifying problems and solving them. That might entail researching the parts of the situation that you can affect, having constructive conversations with others, writing down actions and then following through on them.
When you have worried productively and done all that you can, it’s a good idea to immerse yourself in other activities: do something fun or perhaps find some small project to develop your skills and knowledge. Even better, help others – as research shows that demonstrating kindness towards others is one of the best ways to boost our own psychological wellbeing.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace. www.talentspace.co.uk
"Research first conducted by scientists led by Susan Fiske at Princeton University suggests that all humans – not just employees – respond universally to warmth, compassion and the sense that others genuinely care"