When it comes to working conditions, we’ve come a long way in the past 100 years — and not just in the wealthiest countries. Global unemployment rates have been down since the 2008 financial crisis, and the number of new jobs created by technological disruption exceeds the number of old jobs that are automated. Yes, there are still ghastly sweatshops, windowless call centers, and asbestos-ridden factories. But, for the most part, there has arguably never been a better time in history to be employed, and it has also never been easier.
In this industrialized world, most employees desire consumer-like experiences. Stable jobs that pay well and give recognition are no longer enough. People want meaning and purpose, a sense of calling, and jobs that are crafted to their unique personalities. They want flexibility, fair compensation, tasks that stimulate, and perhaps most of all, they want to feel safe showing their “authentic selves.” Top employers know that they must cater to these significant expectations to be a serious competitor in the war for talent.
Yet, there’s still one, big unaddressed issue that keeps popping up: burnout. In the U.S. alone, workplace stress costs the economy around $300 billion per year in absenteeism, diminished productivity, and legal and medical fees. Unsurprisingly, study after study shows that stress and burnout are major drivers of staff turnover, accidents, injuries, and substance abuse. Even among the top companies and the most desirable places to work this is a problem — and its generally the consequence of one thing: bad leadership.
In theory, leaders should be shielding their followers and subordinates from stress, operating as a beacon of calmness and safety throughout difficult times. In reality, however, leaders are more likely to cause stress than to reduce it. This problem is far more common than it should be. Millions of employees around the world suffer the consequences of bad leadership, including burnout, alienation, and decreased mental and physical wellbeing. This is particularly true when managers practice abusive behaviors, but at times, it’s their sheer incompetence that demotivates, demoralizes, and stresses out their teams. Lacking technical expertise, having no clue how to give or receive feedback, failing to understand potential, or a general inability to evaluate their subordinates’ performance, are just some of the common signs of incompetence.
If organizations want to improve their employees’ work experience, they should start by improving their leadership. This will probably do more to reduce workplace stress than any other single measure. To that end, here are four critical lessons you should consider:
There is no better cure than prevention. We are better at predicting our behavior than changing it, and that also applies to our leadership problems. While organizations spend much more time and money on leadership development than selection, it should be the other way around. Studies show that a leaders’ performance — including their tendency to stress employees out — can often be predicted using science-based assessments and data. There is no excuse for hiring leaders who consistently terrorize or alienate their teams. Moreover, it is not easy to simply coach someone to be pleasant, fair, and caring if they do not already attain at least some of those assets naturally.
In line, organizations should spend more time scrutinizing candidates who apply for leadership roles. Focus less on their past performance (particularly if they are being promoted from an individual contributor role), and more on their actual potential. Do they have the right expertise? Are they curious, smart, and fast learners? Above all, do they have EQ, empathy, and integrity? Using science-based assessments to measure these traits will help companies avoid future leadership problems.
It is more profitable to remove toxic leaders than to hire superstars. As a recent Harvard Business School study shows, it is about twice as profitable for organizations to eliminate parasitic, toxic leaders than to hire top performing ones. Toxicity spreads faster and wider than good behavior, and when bad behavior comes from the very top, it can pollute the company culture like a virus.
Organizations can avoid this common trap by focusing not only on leaders’ “strengths,” but also taking into account their potential flaws. What are their toxic or extreme tendencies? Do they display any dark-side traits? The key implication of the research here is that companies will be better off with above-average talent that is well-behaved, than with badly behaved superstars.
Resilience can hide the effects of bad leadership. Few competencies have been in such great demand recently as resilience, perhaps because resilience enables employees to put up with bad managers (same goes for grit). In a similar vein, incompetent leaders can hide their incompetence by hiring resilient employees with high levels of emotional intelligence, as they will show up as “engaged” in employee engagement surveys even when they are poorly managed or unfairly treated.
Organizations therefore need to ensure that their workforce doesn’t over-index in EQ or emotional stability. If you mostly recruit people who are dispositionally happy and cheerful as opposed to analytical and honest, it will be harder for you to detect problems with your leadership. Sure, this profile will generally be associated with higher levels of wellbeing, but it will also mask underlying leadership issues that need to be fixed. It is a bit like only reading customer reviews from your most lenient, positive, and friendly customers: just because they are polite or have low standards doesn’t mean you are doing a great job.
Boring is often better. Although people can stress out (and freak out) for multiple reasons, the most common one is an inability to predict what comes next. Uncertainty is one of the most common drivers of stress. This also applies to leaders, which is why boring managers will be far less likely to stress out their teams and subordinates than managers who are flamboyant, eccentric, or charismatic — especially if they are explosive and unpredictable.
To start, companies can reduce their reliance on short-term interactions, such as the job interview, when gauging leadership potential. The ability to put on a good show or performance during such instances says very little about the ability to be an effective leader. Instead, look into each candidate’s track record and references to learn more about their leadership style and character.
If companies are really interested in boosting their workforce’s wellbeing, they should spend less time and money worrying about perks like office layout, team off-sites, and organic snacks, and more time ensuring that their employees are not traumatized by toxic or mediocre leaders. To provide a stress-free work environment, they need to hire competent leaders. Finding the right person may take more time, but the pay off will be worth the investment — for employees and for the organization at large.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. He’s the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It). Find him on Twitter: @drtcp or at www.drtomas.com.