The growing need for positive and empathetic leaders 

To engage and retain talent, leaders must become more aware of how their mindset affects their perceptions and behaviors.

A recent Sloan Management Review article attributes the Great Resignation to toxic corporate culture. Leaders rarely have the intention to create a toxic culture, but their mindset and leadership style may inadvertently generate this undesired impact. One such mindset is psychological positivity. 

The benefits of psychological positivity

An individual difference exists between seeing the glass “half full” and “half empty.” Psychologists have tried to examine how this individual difference relates to career success. In science, the tendency to see the glass half full refers to positive psychology, which further advances to the concept of psychological capital. Hope, self-efficacy and optimism categorize individuals who possess a high level of psychological capital. 

In general, research has favored positive psychology. Psychological capital has been considered a positive resource for combating stress. Leadership studies have long established the benefits of developing through challenging experiences. Leadership scholars called these difficult and challenging experiences crucibles of leadership. A crucible is an unpleasant, yet transformative experience. It is a point of deep self-reflection that forces individuals to question who they are and what matters to them. 

Individuals have different mindsets for interpreting stressful situations. A challenging experience can either be considered a stretching opportunity for learning and growth, or a threatening situation that causes anxiety and fear. Individuals who possess a high level of positivity are more stress tolerant. The positive appraisal of challenging situations in turn stimulates learning and growth

The sense of positivity is particularly important in today’s environment when leaders are simultaneously facing and combating different sources of stress. Leaders who possess a high level of positivity are more resilient. 

The potential problem of positivity

But talent leaders should watch out for positivity showing up in leaders being self-centered. Self-centered positive leaders may become less sensitive to the suffering employees are experiencing.

“If stress is good for me, it’s probably good for you too.” Researchers from Tel Aviv University found leaders project their stress mindset onto others, resulting in egocentrically biased judgments of others’ strain. 

Self-centered positive leaders, due to their own success in the past, get used to approaching a difficult situation from a more optimistic angle. They tend to underestimate the stress employees are experiencing in a difficult situation. 

Another team of researchers from the University of Zurich further observed the stress mindset leaders have influences their health-oriented leadership behavior. In three experiments, researchers consistently found when leaders consider a challenging situation as something positive and career-enhancing they are less likely to exhibit considerate leadership behaviors to promote employee well-being. 

Jack Welch once said, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance.” This is an illustrative example of leaders who project their own mindset on others. Jack Welch is known for forced ranking in performance appraisal and firing the bottom 10 percent.

Seeing the glass half empty is not always bad. Basima A. Tewfik, a professor from the MIT Sloan School of Management, found individuals who have impostor thinking are perceived more interpersonally effective by others. 

The author explained workplace imposter thoughts lead to greater perceived interpersonal effectiveness by encouraging those high in such thoughts to adopt a more other-focused orientation, which captures the extent to which one attends to, is interested in, and focuses on others. A more other-focused orientation may show in the form of assurances, question-asking in conversation, greater eye contact and active listening.

Caring leadership drives employee engagement

The analysis of a large volume of survey data supported the positive impact of a leader’s caring behavior on team outcomes. The survey assesses leadership style and team climate. The analysis found when leaders demonstrate caring leadership behavior, team members report a high level of team identity and team work engagement. 

Team identity is the sense of belongingness and commitment to the team. Team work engagement is the shared motivation among team members to invest a high level of energy and effort for the success of the team. 

The data were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic from more than 15,000 individuals in 3,568 teams. Caring and considerate leadership (sample items: “The leader focuses a lot of attention on the personal well-being of people in the team” and “The leader encourages people to talk about their personal problems”) has a strong and positive correlation (r=.48, p<.001) with team identity (sample items: “There is a lot of personal loyalty to the team” and “People in the team speak well of it”). The caring and considerate leadership also has a positive correlation (r=.35, p<.001) with team engagement (sample items: “People in the team go out of their way to make the team successful” and “People in the team are willing to make sacrifices to get the job done”).

Team identity and engagement foster emotional bonding. Employees who are engaged with their teams are less likely to leave their organizations. 

Mindset-based leadership programs

“People join organizations but quit managers.” Given the positive impact of caring leadership, an obvious implication is to design and implement leadership programs to drive employee engagement. Yet many employee engagement initiatives fail to deliver the expected outcomes. 

Part of the reason is these programs neglect addressing leadership mindset. To what extent leaders demonstrate caring and considerate behavior depends on leaders’ accurate perception of employee needs, which is filtered by their mindset. Leadership programs therefore should be designed to help leaders become more aware of how their mindset affects their perceptions and behaviors. The programs should help leaders:

  • Understand people differ in their assessment of stress. A challenge may be developmental and career-enhancing to some people but damaging and career-hindering to others.
  • Be empathetic to employees who are combating with stress. Don’t jump to negative conclusions of others who appear stressed out.
  • Watch for signs of employee stress and exhaustion instead of relying on personal assumption or intuition.
  • Recognize some people don’t talk about their personal suffering openly. Ask them. Show interest in listening to their personal issues.
  • Establish individualized relationships with each member in the leader’s team. As health warning signs differ between individuals, it’s important for leaders to pay attention to changes among individual employees. 
  • Complement positivity with authenticity. Faking positivity only results in employee cynicism.

The goal of these leadership programs is not to change leaders’ mindsets to a more glass half empty type. Instead, the goal is to develop empathy while maintaining positivity. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Being positive has been related to individual career success. The need to be positive no matter what the situation, however, could become toxic positivity. It may become counterproductive when leaders project their positive mindset on employees when what they really need is the help from their managers to handle the stress. Ultimately, a leader in need is a leader indeed.