This blog is about the quality of leadership and its impact on well-being.
Last weekend, there was an article in the Belgian newspaper “De Tijd” dealing with the challenge of mental well-being and burnout. It was basically an interview with Arnold Bakker and Evangelia Demerouti. Coincidentally, there was also an interview with Wilmar Schaufeli in De Standaard, the same day. The researchers gave their view on what burnout exactly is, about its antecedents and consequences, and how we should deal with it. Today, there is a lot of talk about a pandemic of mental issues, and I’m happy that things were put in perspective.
- There is no pandemic of burnout. it is still difficult to say how many people suffer from it, but apparently, about 2% of the working population are concerned.
- Yes, there is an aggravated issue of mental health, but this in itself is not new. Throughout history, there have been many examples of people with symptoms of burnout. But in the past, this was misdiagnosed and not linked to work.
- A questionnaire cannot replace the diagnostic approach to a medical issue. A survey can reveal risk factors, but it’s dangerous to translate the results of a survey into an overall statistic of the prevalence of burnout. Let’s be careful and not invent or exaggerate a challenge.
- How one measures burnout has an impact on the metric. Some surveys have a limited definition of burnout and measure only exhaustion, dissatisfaction, or another related concept. HR should be critical about the tools that are used to measure and never jump to conclusions.
Who is responsible?
The responsibility for mental well-being does not lie exclusively with one of the parties involved: the employer or the employee. It’s much more complicated than this. However, employers have a big responsibility as they can influence the quality of the working conditions in which people have to work. They cannot control everything, but they can influence a lot.
Putting the responsibility on the individual employee would mean that the solution lies in the behavior of that employee. We should not send someone to mindfulness training when the context in which they have to work is not OK, says Wilmar Schaufeli.
It’s like hanging a toilet block in a very dirty toilet. The solution might be worse than the original problem.
I would say that we need to go upstream and work as much as possible on the sources of mental issues and, therefore, also on the sources of mental well-being. Upstream means that we take a systemic approach and look at the different aspects and their interactions. The way one experiences work depends on the process, procedures, leadership, culture or climate, etc., but also on the personal situation.
One model I can recommend to use when thinking about well-being and engagement Is the JDR model, developed by Bakker and Demerouti. This model captures the need for balance between sources of energy and sources of mental workload. When they are in balance, or when the sources of energy surpass the sources of workload, the situation is OK. Sources of energy also include personal sources of energy. When I founded Otolith, this notion of balance was at the forefront of our mission. An otolith enables vertebrates to feel direction, balance, and acceleration. In order for people to feel well, they need balance.
One important source of well-being comes from the contacts people have. Customers, patients, and citizens give us the purpose of our work, but they can be at the same time a source of frustration. The increasing aggressiveness or the indifference of the people we want to help or save is very confronting. The first professions for which mental health issues were detected were health care professionals and teachers. Now we know that burnout can touch anyone. People working in the front with close contact with customers might be a little bit more susceptible to it than the people who work “safely” in the back. This in itself is one of the reasons also why there are often tensions between customer contact people and back office people who seem not to feel the pulse of the market. And this contributes to the feeling of not being appreciated.
Ever since the research on stress and burnout took off, we have known that social support is one of the main sources of energy and, therefore, one of the antidotes against negative or excessive stress and burnout. People are able to work hard and achieve challenging targets when they feel supported and appreciated. Without recognition, they get on an emotional treadmill. They work hard without appreciation. And then, they work even harder. But as appreciation does not come, people become cynical. And they become exhausted and get detached from work.
One of the most important protagonists of this social support is the leader. Sure, appreciation and recognition can also come from colleagues, customers, and other parties, but when the leader seems to ignore someone’s achievements, chances are that there is a negative impact on well-being. The leader plays an important role in fulfilling the need for achievement. Only a minority of people seem to be able to continue without social support.
And this brings us to the aspects of leadership quality.
There are two dimensions of leadership quality: intensity and content.
I would like to introduce the concept of the right level of leadership, which is also present in the work of Rob Kaiser. We know that too much or not enough of a quality may lead to problems. Think about parenthood. Parents can be very fussy and intervene too much in the actions of a child, even at a later age. We all know the consequences of this. And we also know what the consequences are when parents neglect their children.
The same is valid for leadership. Leaders can be too present, or they can be too absent. Leaders can be too controlling, or they might lack a steering capacity. Leaders can be very operational, or they can be too strategic and too abstract. The message here is that leaders need to adapt not only to the needs and expectations of their team members but also to the changing context. In times of crisis, leadership will be different than in times of peace and predictability. There is no one-size-fits-all leadership. In theory, leaders should adapt their style of leadership as many times as there are people and situations. Models like situational leadership are not valid as the offer and simplified, typology-style approach to leadership, and books about heroic leadership endeavors totally miss the point. There just is not one way.
Let’s also not forget that leadership occurs in the political context a leader has to manage as well.
Leaders need to be empathic so that they can adapt their style according to the needs of the people and the needs of the organization. They need to be fair, kind, and collaborative. These very human behaviors do not exclude a focus on results or on customers. These behaviors create the right social and psychological environment in which people can thrive and perform. Creating that kind of context is the essence of leadership and, for that matter, also of HR.
When I help organizations to develop their leadership, I never focus on a long list of competencies or a backpack full of techniques, tools, and models. I focus more on the role that leaders have to fulfill. And if leaders need to acquire certain techniques to fulfill these roles, then they need to be introduced.
These are the areas in which leaders play a role:
- building an environment of trust and psychological safety
- making sure people understand the meaningfulness of the actions (why?)
- helping people to grow and develop their skill set and their sustainable employability
- steering on progress and values
- crafting an engaging context in which people want to collaborate, contribute, change.
in the past five years, I have been working with hundreds of leaders and with many management teams. The problem they often face is that the role is not clear to them. They often have a technical, task-based view of what leadership is. As they have to combine the leadership role with operational tasks, they struggle with the balance between leading and performing. Helping people to move forward often requires a long-term, indirect, and adaptive approach. As leaders focus on tasks and short-term outcomes – the what of leadership – they neglect the longer-term development of people and teams. They are under pressure to deliver, not to develop.
Leadership Quality is about human behaviour
We just need to be less efficient in the short run to be more effective in the long run.
If leadership is based on pushing people and putting them under pressure, it is not sustainable. Leadership will be more sustainable when it is based on human behaviors like empathy, kindness, reciprocity, fairness, honesty, compassion, modesty, humility, and respect. These are all trust-enhancing behaviors that require space. If we focus too much on efficiency and the target achievement, we destroy the experience that people need. I have said this numerous times; sometimes, we just need to be less efficient in the short run to be more effective in the long run. If leaders can do this, they create a social context that gives energy to people and makes them more resilient. People who work in environments like this are able and willing to work hard and maintain their balance.
Leaders shape the context.
This is the link to the articles: https://www.tijd.be/de-tijd-vooruit/hr/de-grootste-misvatting-over-burn-outs-dat-het-individu-schuld-treft/10405869 and https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20220805_97394617
Photo by Daria Shevtsova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/people-walking-on-shore-1546105/