When we think of leadership, most of us think about skills or traits or work related behaviors directly related to whatever results an organization is supposed to achieve: The greater the results, the greater the leader. While there is certainly some truth to that, there are also psychological components of leadership—both how leaders interact with others and how they function themselves. These are things that do not show up in a spreadsheet or a quarterly report, but they are often critical to the health of leaders themselves and the folks they support in an organization. And, for what it’s worth, there is also interesting research on how at least some psychological constructs such as sense of belonging and sense of purpose, affect employee retention and productivity.
So, speaking of the psychological or affective elements of leadership, one of the most important and simple things you can do as a leader is to offer encouragement to your employees. Even the most confident and successful people have moments of self-doubt. The rest of us are frankly more vulnerable than the “most confident” people and have many moments of self-doubt!
There are a couple of really good reasons to look for opportunities to reassure and support the folks you manage. One altruistic reason is that you will make people feel better—less stressed, anxious, etc. A practical and even self-serving reason is that if your employees feel more confident, they will commit to their work more energetically, will take risks, and will be less distracted by doubt. And in more extreme situations, a good pep talk at the right time may keep someone from looking for other opportunities. Unlike a lot of leadership tasks, this one is really easy. You just have to be genuine.
Interestingly (and unfortunately) the higher up the ladder a manager is in an organization, the less likely he or she is to get encouragement or a pep talk, etc. We have this strange belief that senior managers and executives, magically, by virtue of their position, somehow have superhuman strength and invulnerability. The phrase “it’s lonely at the top,” speaks to the fact that the most senior leaders tend to be the least supported psychologically. This is further ironic because C-level executives, for example, tend to experience the greatest stress because they have the greatest responsibilities (both in quantity and criticality). Strangely, despite the clear need, those leaders are the least likely to receive encouragement. This is structural, i.e., if you’re at the top, there aren’t many people above you to offer support, and it is also based on the misconception that the most senior leaders don’t need support and encouragement precisely because they are senior leaders.
The good news is that encouragement can come from anyone, not just a boss. It is valuable regardless and subordinates should feel comfortable to offer words of encouragement to their supervisors as well. However, one reason that supportive comments from someone above are important is because our superiors control our destiny! As a result, if they have confidence in us, we are likely to have more confidence in ourselves.
So, look for opportunities to offer words of encouragement–a quick written note, a pat on the back, a one-minute pep talk—any of these will provide value well in excess of the effort itself.
Post Script: This post is particularly timely because, for a variety of reasons, people (and thus employees) are feeling more and deeper stress than at any time since it has been measured. Research recently conducted by the American Psychological Association found that Americans have hit record highs of stress and anxiety. Similarly, the World Health Organization recently declared that stress has become a worldwide crisis and is “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” There are many reasons for the increase in stress, some of which employees bring to the workplace and some of which are caused by the workplace. Regardless, it has become such a pervasive issue that it is not possible for leaders to effectively run organizations without taking stress mitigation into account (in themselves and their employees). While offering words of encouragement to employees and colleagues is not a stress mitigation plan itself, it does often relieve the stress caused by self-doubt in the workplace and provides high returns for fairly low effort.