People are happier and more productive when their leaders show strong morals, a clear vision and commitment to stakeholders, a new study has found.
The growing importance of what is being described as ‘purposeful leadership’ for the modern workplace is outlined in a new report for the CIPD, a UK professional body for HR and people development.
When modern managers display ‘purposeful’ behaviours, employees are less likely to quit, more satisfied, willing to go the extra mile, better performers and less cynical, according to the researchers at the University of Sussex, the University of Greenwich, the IPA and CIPD.
Professor Catherine Bailey at the University of Sussex said: “Our study shows that the modern workplace is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is one of rules and duties.
“People increasingly expect an organisational purpose that goes beyond a mere focus on the bottom line, beyond the kind of short-termist, financial imperatives that are blamed by many for causing the 2008 recession.
“In turn, they respond to leaders who care not just about themselves but wider society, who have strong morals and ethics, and who behave with purpose.”
Not much is known about what causes purposeful leadership or what impact it has — this new study is an attempt to fill this gap.
Laura Harrison, Director of Strategy and Transformation at the CIPD, said: “Building on a number of studies on trust, decision making, and corporate governance, this study begins an examination of an under considered facet of leadership, purposefulness.
“Much has been discussed about the critical nature of invoking and ‘living’ purpose in an organisation, but little around the alignment of this purpose to the internal, perhaps hidden, moral compass of an organisation’s leaders.
“The challenge now is how we enable and support the development of leaders that people actually want to follow.”
The research found that just one in five UK bosses describes themselves as a ‘purposeful leader’, highlighting a largely untapped opportunity for modern organisations to improve performance by reshaping the role of managers.
The researchers suggest that there is much that organisations can do to foster purposeful and ethical leadership, including the adoption of relevant policies, leader role-modelling, alignment around a core vision, training and development, and organisational culture.
Dr Amanda Shantz at the University of Greenwich says: “If organisations are serious about acting on the rhetoric of business purpose, and are to invest in achievement of their purpose, they have to reconsider the ways they select, develop and assess leaders.
“The traditional focus on leader behaviours only goes so far as to develop their ability to perform in a role. Instead, what is required is a development of the whole person, while accepting that it is impossible to mould all individuals into a uniform model of morals and ethics.
“The real challenge is not in trying to achieve perfect match between leaders’ and organisational values, but in ensuring that they complement each other in ways that best suit organisational circumstances at a given time.
“This includes supporting leaders to successfully recognise and negotiate the differences between what they stand for and what the business intends to achieve, without detriment to the individual leader or the company’s operations.”
Worker compensation claims have been decreasing over time but this masks all kinds of problems with our wellbeing at work.
Making our workplaces healthier and safer means we have to confront all those things causing us stress at work. And that’s not going to be solved by standing desks, complimentary massage or lunchtime yoga.
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Burnout is on the rise. It is a growing problem for the modern workplace, having an impact on organisational costs, as well as employee health and well-being. These include possible long-term health risks and, due to its contagious nature, a toxic working environment of low morale, scapegoating, and increased office politics.
Organisations have focused on burnout to protect their profits, placing blame for lowered performance on individual employees, rather than making adequate adjustments to safeguard against stress. This emphasis on the employee has led to psychometrically profiling those that may be at risk of burnout due to their psychological make-up, rather than organisations taking responsibility and making systematic changes to reduce stress caused by structural level problems.
This blame game is often unhelpful. Not just for the employees in question, but also because it risks a skills shortage in certain professions such as health and social care. Plus, it further contributes to the burnout cycle: with limited staff and resources, demands are placed on fewer employees.
Research into burnout has been linked to office politics, menial working tasks that interfere with work duties and high job demands that lead to exhaustion. Rising workloads and long hours are the main culprits; however, some employees are better able to cope or are more adaptable than others.
Perception of stress is also a contributing factor. If you perceive you do not have the right resources to cope with your workload, or perceive it to be more than you can cope with, you are much more likely to succumb to stress-related disorders.
Individual differences and personality types also play a role in the risk of burnout. Type A personalities, for example – who have a mix of behavioural traits that include hardiness, impatience, competitiveness and drive – and people who like to have large amounts of control, are also linked to higher rates of stress at work. Research shows that employees with these personalities tend to be more restless, hostile and time-conscious, which puts them at greater risk of workplace stress.
It is important, however, not to make banal assumptions when it comes to understanding how different people experience stress. This runs the risk of organisations screening out applicants for jobs on the basis of personality or attributing blame to employees, rather than taking responsibility as an organisation to make adequate changes to safeguard their employees from stress.
Many global organisations have intervention plans that place the onus on the employee to manage their health and well-being through training programmes such as building resilience and coping skills. But this often has the semblance of blaming employees, while abdicating responsibility and not making any real changes to policies. The reality is that organisations are stressful, often purporting an employee wellness agenda that isn’t really implemented in practice.
There are three main dimensions of burnout according to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most commonly used burnout scale: exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of personal accomplishment, with exhaustion being the most obviously displayed. Signs of burnout can vary between employees and manifest in multiple industries, from healthcare and education settings to legal and corporate finance firms.
Burnout causes a range of psychologicaland physical problems and can affect people long after they no longer face the stressful situation. These include fatigue, irritability, depression, withdrawal, mental and physical health problems, and self-medication with alcohol and drug use. Consequently, it is something that employees and organisations must manage carefully.
Employees come in all shapes and sizes. As a result, it is imperative that managers and organisations do not prescribe a one-size fits all model to managing employee well-being. Instead, they should work on an individual basis with each employee, finding flexible interventions and providing an adaptable and agile working environment along the way.
Many workplaces are built around teamwork, collaboration and endless meetings to harness creativity. This model does not bode well, however, for people whose creative juices and energy levels are depleted through constant collaboration. In fact, many individuals, especially those that are more introverted, feel exhausted and find it difficult to get their work done in this kind of environment.
As such, organisations can provide a space for these personalities to work alone, where their productivity increases and creative juices can flow. Similarly, organisations can work with employees, providing agile working conditions to help create a sustainable working culture and work-life balance, thus reducing the likelihood of burnout.
Of course, individuals have a role to play too. It is important that people manage their own personal expectations, harnessing their skills and reflecting on their own personal values. This is particularly the case if you’re working in a role that does not readily align with your own values or predisposition. It’s important to reflect on what matters to you, as living an inauthentic life can lead to burnout when your personal values are conflicted.
Academic research has found that having greater control over your job can help you manage work-related stress. But it’s never suggested that it was a matter of life and death — until now.
New research from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in the US finds that those in high-stress jobs with little control over their workflow die younger or are less healthy than those who have more flexibility and discretion in their jobs and are able to set their own goals as part of their employment.
Using a longitudinal sample of 2,363 Wisconsin residents in their 60s over a seven-year period, they found that for individuals in low-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 15.4 percent increase in the likelihood of death, compared to low job demands. For those in high-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 34 percent decrease in the likelihood of death compared to low job demands.
“We explored job demands, or the amount of work, time pressure and concentration demands of a job, and job control, or the amount of discretion one has over making decisions at work, as joint predictors of death,” said Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organisational behavior and human resources at the Kelley School and the paper’s lead author.
“These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision-making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision-making.”
The paper, “Worked to Death: The Relationships of Job Demands and Job Control With Mortality,” has been accepted for publication in the journal Personnel Psychology.
Studies exploring the work factors associated with death are largely absent from the organisational psychology and management literatures. The authors believe theirs is the first study in the management and applied psychology fields to examine the relationship between job characteristics and mortality.
Gonzalez-Mulé said the paper’s results do not suggest that employers necessarily need to cut back on what is expected from employees. Rather, they demonstrate the value in restructuring some jobs to provide employees with more say about how the work gets done.
“You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals, set their own schedules, prioritize their decision-making and the like,” he said, also recommending that firms allow “employees to have a voice in the goal-setting process, so when you’re telling someone what they’re going to do … it’s more of a two-way conversation.”
Thus, micro-managing employees can have a public health impact. Among people in the study’s sample, the researchers also found that the same set of causal relationships applied to their body mass index. People in high-demand jobs with low control were heavier than those in high-demand jobs with high control.
“When you don’t have the necessary resources to deal with a demanding job, you do this other stuff,” Gonzalez-Mulé said. “You might eat more, you might smoke, you might engage in some of these things to cope with it.”
Cancer research studies have found a correlation between eating poorly and developing the disease; at 55 percent, cancer was the leading cause of death of those in the paper’s sample. Other leading causes of death were circulatory system ailments, 22 percent; and respiratory system ailments, 8 percent.
The paper provides more reasons for those in stressful, dead-end jobs to refresh their resumes and look for other employment. Twenty-six percent of deaths occurred in people in frontline service jobs, and 32 percent of deaths occurred in people with manufacturing jobs who also reported high job demands and low control.
“What we found is that those people that are in entry-level service jobs and construction jobs have pretty high death rates, more so than people in professional jobs and office positions,” he said. “Interestingly, we found a really low rate of death among agricultural workers.”
Gonzalez-Mulé said the new study highlights the benefits of job crafting, a relatively new process that enables employees to mold and redesign their job to make it more meaningful. Other research suggests that workers who engage in job crafting are happier and are more productive than co-workers who don’t.
“In some settings, it will be difficult to do this. For a construction worker, it’s going to really hard to allow them autonomy; there’s usually just one right way to do things. In jobs like that, it’s more about just warning the employee of the risks that are here,” he said. “But with some blue-collar jobs, you can. Some people have experimented with this in factory settings, using things like flex-time and paying people based on piece-rate … showing employees what the outcome is of their work.
“There’s a lot research that shows that people who have a social connection with the beneficiaries of their work are much more satisfied and have less stress in their jobs, with no change in the job itself.”
Their study also found that people with a higher degree of control over their work tend to find stress to be useful.
“Stressful jobs cause you to find ways to problem-solve and work through ways to get the work done. Having higher control gives you the resources you need to do that,” Gonzalez-Mulé said. “A stressful job then, instead of being something debilitating, can be something that’s energizing. You’re able to set your own goals, you’re able to prioritize work. You can go about deciding how you’re going to get it done. That stress then becomes something you enjoy.”
Data in the study was obtained from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which followed more than 10,000 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. They were interviewed at various time intervals over their lives, through 2011, to provide data on educational, occupational and emotional experiences. All participants in the study were employed but near the end of their careers.
Gonzalez-Mulé and Cockburn only included those who were not retired in 2004 and who responded to questions about job demands and job control, and then followed up on their responses to questions in 2011. They employed rigorous controls for factors such as demographic characteristics, socioeconomic status and affect.
Gonzalez-Mulé wonders if younger workers are better able to cope with demanding jobs, regardless of the level of control, than workers at the end of their careers. Future research could follow people at an earlier point in their careers to see if the Job Demands-Control Model accurately predicts strain over time.
Well-being at work is a prerequisite for flourishing in life. Most of us have some type of employment, if not a full-time job, and we spend the majority of our waking hours engaged in this work. Therefore the impact these hours have on our souls is of utmost importance to living a full and happy life.
So what is it that people really want and need out of work? What are the factors that make one productive and happy?
Money isn’t the right answer, even if it is part of what gets us out of bed and on our way to the office. After the first few paychecks, we begin seeking something else, something more. Of course we want to labor alongside good people, do quality work and get that sense of accomplishment that is uniquely tied to a job well done. Yet a recent Gallup study showed that 80% of workers still don’t like what they do each day. Clearly, there’s something else we want from the half (or more) of the day we spend at the office.
Research shows part of the answer comes down to relationships, engagement and authenticity.
The importance of relationships
Relationships with coworkers and customers are a key outcome of work. In fact for some, relationships are a work objective. As part of our ongoing longitudinal research we found that professionals who lack vital connections to co-workers faced significant challenges to sustained well-being. This research also indicated that professionals are much more likely to flourish if they have strong relationships with their customers and clients as well.
In order to be well, we need healthy relationships, including at work. Nevertheless, the norms of many office environments discourage friendships among colleagues, particularly among supervisors and subordinates. We need to address the inherent friction created by human beings’ common need for meaningful relationships with the prevailing attitude in the workplace that human interaction be reduced to an arms-length or quid pro quo association. One solution is for companies to relax their views on workplace relationships and see them as powerful tools for collaboration instead of potential distractions.
￼Engagement and authenticity
Among the most powerful and potent ideas that are emerging from the field of employee well-being and our own research are the concepts of engagement and authenticity at work. Clearly, people are at their most productive, creative and resilient when they are able to be fully engaged in what they’re doing and express themselves fully in their work.
Understanding the concept of engagement begins by recognizing that, over the course of a day, people are constantly bringing in and leaving out various depths of themselves as they work. That is, people can use varying levels and dimensions of their physical, emotional, spiritual and cognitive resources in the way they enact roles, perform activities or fulfill responsibilities.
When people are able to bring their fullest and best selves, their performance is more dynamic and work is more gratifying and fulfilling. But when employees are less than fully present – and instead focused on some other task, such as day dreaming or texting – their work experience suffers. An environment that doesn’t energize and fulfill translates into less inspired performance.
Authenticity refers to being one’s true self. It bears a strong connection to engagement, but encompasses being able to enact one’s deeply held values and strongest beliefs — especially those beliefs related to transcendence, spirituality or religiosity. Being fully authentic requires that we be true to ourselves, expressing those most important, even sacred, dimensions that are our essence.
What companies can do: a case study
￼While engagement at work has become a focus for many organisations, authenticity appears less well understood by business leaders. This is likely because the notion of authenticity in the workplace is somewhat new and hasn’t been well publicized. Yet, if workers hold part of themselves back, their performance and energy will suffer. As a result, organizations need to find ways to change this.
Here’s one example.
In 2004, a Fortune 500 company faced the need to reduce turnover among its 3,000 Customer Service Representatives (CSR). These CSRs worked in five large call centers where annualized attrition hovered at around 50%. Critical to the health care company’s business strategy was having CSRs with a full command of the firm’s complex products and offerings. CSR training lasted six weeks, but this was only the beginning.
The company’s internal studies showed the job had a steep learning curve. It took 6 to 18 months for a CSR to become competent. However, there was still much to learn, and CSRs didn’t fully master their jobs until they had 4 or 5 years of experience. The data pointed to a clear need to retain CSRs for 5+ years in order not to lose all of that precious experience — a difficult tenure goal for the call center industry.
One of us was an HR executive at the company at the time, and together we crafted a multi-pronged program that, among other things, involved showing the employees how critical they were to its success; offering more training and advancement opportunities tailored to their strengths; and connecting their personal values to their jobs and customers.
As a result, turnover dropped nearly 50% as work experience improved and employee satisfaction jumped.
It all comes down to execution
What the company did isn’t terribly innovative or complex; any organization could develop similar practices aimed at increasing employee loyalty, satisfaction and retention.
What is difficult, however, is the execution. The executives at this company were relentless in their support of and personal involvement in the daily administration of these programs, and continued their commitment as years passed. For example, whenever executives visited the call centers, they took part in raucous recognition events, where they handed out rewards and hugs. Persistent execution was the difference between lip service and world-class results.
Clearly the old notions of fair pay and a reasonably satisfying job are not enough to lead to well-being in the workplace. And while there are a myriad of things we need and want from work, our research suggests there are three critical elements:
The ability to learn, grow and be challenged by our work.
High levels of engagement, in part driven by the use of personal strengths.
A work environment that allows us to be authentic and enact our core values.
These three factors lead to optimal performance and well-being. If accompanied by a reasonable paycheck and good folks to work with, this likely represents what most of us want and need from work.