Follow the leader

Want to find a good leader? Look for emotional agility

by Guest Writer

Thanks to Noah Jacobson for this guest post about preventing and dealing with burnout! Noah interned previously with Happy Brain Science and became fascinated with the application of positive psychology. He graduated from Grinnell College with a degree in Psychology and Neuroscience.

Choose Good Leaders to Create Positive Impact

Choosing leaders for your organization can have a huge impact on engagement, happiness, performance, and retention. People generally don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. How can you choose leaders that will have a positive impact on your people and organization?

Imagine you’re choosing a new team leader. Maybe it’s an HR director who communicates organizational culture to both employees and clients, or a project manager tasked with mediating competing personalities under a tight deadline. For many people, it is easy to envision what makes a leader. A few traits and behaviors come to mind: courage, decisiveness, perseverance under pressure, ability to command attention, directive, et cetera. What if the stereotypical image of a good leader doesn’t actually predict good leadership? Instead of relying on cliche leadership traits that reflect authority and confidence, focus on finding social and emotional skills that inspire others to perform and achieve at a high level, regardless of the situation.

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Shifting Our Perspective of Good Leaders

The difference between your image of a good leader and a narcissist could be smaller than you might think. Many leadership characteristics overlap with narcissistic behavior. Think authority, overly confident, dominance, and inflated high self-esteem. Narcissistic qualities in leaders predict higher assessments of effective leadership and more leadership authority. In fact, when retail employees observed their supervisors, those who possessed narcissistic qualities were rated as better leaders but only in the short term. When employees were given more opportunities to observe their leader, they no longer rated them as effective. Interestingly, narcissistic leaders typically had less organizational experience at the time of hiring. Clearly assessing past experience rather than relying on supposed beneficial traits can be an easy solution.

Narcissistic leadership behavior also affects performance. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam invited participants to complete a group decision making task. Participants individually read descriptions of three candidates applying to be a secret agent. Afterwards, they met in groups to choose the best candidate, with a randomly chosen leader tasked with making the final decision. Each group member received only partial information about each candidate. To make the best decision, the group had to share information equally about each candidate. The researchers found that leaders with narcissistic tendencies were less likely to encourage sharing information, which resulted in their group not choosing the best candidate.

Not all prototypical leadership behavior is unhelpful. In fact, there are some positive attributes and notable figures who use it quite effectively. For example, many of the greatest leaders in history possessed narcissistic traits: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Winston Churchill to name a few. Narcissistic leaders also exhibit enhanced performance under pressure.

However, in a group setting that requires social sensitivity such as empathy or collaboration, narcissistic tendencies will likely result in subpar performance.

Emotional Connection Drives Us

There is no perfect formula for identifying a good leader, but researchers have agreed on a few overarching themes that produce strong outcomes. One effective approach is transformational leadership, a leadership style characterized by building an emotional connection with employees and inspiring them to achieve workplace goals. A 2018 study by German psychologists found that transformational leaders increase their followers’ perception of the importance of work related projects and their ability to accomplish them. This positive perception leads employees to higher job satisfaction, feel a higher commitment to their organization, and behave more proactively.

Social and emotional skills are critical when choosing an effective leader. Simply expressing positivity towards others while on the job can boost a leader’s success. Researchers at the University of Washington found when leaders express positive emotions directed at others (i.e., gratitude), followers rate their leader as more sincere and effective. Conversely, expressing negative emotions towards others (i.e., guilt) makes followers interpret their leaders as less sincere. In the study of retail workers, non-narcissistic leaders reduced employee absenteeism over time whereas narcissistic leaders had no effects. Clearly, leaders who convey gratitude, compassion, or other positive emotions towards their followers will reap rewards.

According to Stephen Zaccaro, a prominent psychologist in the leadership field, we must not forget context when considering leadership qualities. While positivity does improve follower performance, research indicates this effect may also be specific to the task. The researchers found that when leaders gave identical instructions but varied their facial expressions and tone, displays of happiness and positivity enhanced creative task performance, whereas sadness and apathy enhanced follower analytical performance. They suggest that high energy enthusiastic individuals may be more effective when leading creative tasks while those with lower energy and potentially more negative emotional tendencies may be effective on guiding analytical tasks.

A word of caution

When considering leadership responsibility as a whole, the researchers warn against focusing too much on specific emotions. They caution that negative emotions can often inhibit other positive leadership outcomes, so it is important not to broadly apply these findings. Instead, versatile leaders who can control their emotions effectively depending on the situation are extremely valuable.

Whether you’re searching for the right boss to supervise the night owls or jumpstart a social media marketing team, the science shows that hiring an emotionally agile leader who connects well with others pays off. What is your experience with hiring—or working for—emotionally agile leaders, or those who lack this vital skill? Please let us know with your comments.