By Klodiana Lanaj, Trevor A Foulk, and Amir Erez
We tend to romanticize leadership. When friends are promoted to managerial positions, we slap them on the back, tell them that they finally made it, and congratulate them for their hard work. Our reactions are understandable. Occupying a leadership role often comes with more prestige, financial resources, flexibility, and future employment opportunities. We often forget, however, that there is a flipside to this coin — leadership is hard and exhausting work.
Leaders have many responsibilities (e.g., budgeting, hiring and firing, paperwork), requiring them to perform diverse tasks and to monitor progress on a multitude of goals. In addition to managing their own performance, leaders are also accountable for their followers’ performance. Employees tend to bring their worries and anxieties to work with them and expect their leaders to manage those too. For example, research suggests that when followers struggle with emotional issues, they approach their leader more often than their coworkers, thinking that it is the leader’s job to help them cope with emotional distress at work. When compounded with getting work done, management of followers’ emotions can exhaust leaders’ own energy, leaving them depleted and unengaged at work. No wonder that survey data suggest that the majority of leaders are exhausted and unengaged at work. For example, in 2017, Gallup reported that only 38% of managers and executives are engaged at work (the number is 29% for middle-level managers). Given these disconcerting numbers, we were interested in developing an intervention that enhances leaders’ engagement at work.
In a study forthcoming in Journal of Applied Psychology, we draw from positive psychology research to develop and test a short daily intervention that helps leaders remain energized throughout the day at work. Research suggests that leaders’ sense of self is closely tied to their leadership role, and leaders care about being successful in their role. For this reason, we expected that an intervention that asks leaders to reflect upon positive aspects of themselves as leaders may energize them by reversing their depletion and improving their engagement.
The intervention is simple. Leaders take a few minutes in the morning to think and write about three things that they like about themselves and that make them a “good leader.” The leaders in our study wrote about personal qualities that they valued (e.g., “I am a good leader because I’m willing to take a stand in the face of injustice”), skills they possessed (e.g., “I am a good leader because I consider others’ opinions”), and achievements they were proud of (“I am a good leader because I helped my team meet deliverables during a crisis”). We ran two studies to investigate whether the intervention helps.
The first study was a daily field experiment with a sample of leaders whom we surveyed for two workweeks. In half of the workdays, first thing in the morning, leaders reflected and wrote about three skills, achievements, qualities, capabilities, or traits that they liked about themselves and that they thought made them good leaders. On the other days, leaders wrote about daily activities not relevant to leadership (we wanted to make sure that the intervention effects were not simply due to writing or taking time to reflect). We then surveyed the leaders multiple times a day. We found that on days when leaders took a few minutes in the morning to reflect and write about aspects of themselves that make them good leaders, they subsequently felt less depleted and more engaged, and they reported having a positive impact on their followers. These effects lasted until the evening, suggesting that leaders felt more positive at home too on intervention days. In a second field experiment, we replicated the energizing effect of the intervention and found that the effect was stronger for employees who hold leadership positions within their organization. These employees self-identify more strongly as leaders and may derive more benefits from interventions that tap into their identity as leaders.
Those aspiring to leadership positions should recognize that leadership can be demanding and exhausting. Such self-awareness may motivate leaders to engage in activities that protect their energy at work. Second, taking a few minutes in the morning to think and write about aspects of oneself that make one a good leader is likely to energize leaders and to make them more influential at work. Finally, followers can help their leaders too. Followers tend to approach their leader for help requests more often than other coworkers and have ample opportunity to express gratitude. Expression of gratitude can benefit leaders’ as well as followers’ own well-being and may offset some of the daily depletion that leaders tend to experience at work.
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