The number one priority for a manager? Self-awareness

Developing and sustaining self-awareness ought to be at the top of the list for every boss – Bob Sutton in Good Boss, Bad Boss

If you’re a people manager and you don’t know what your team think about working with you, then that’s like driving a car with no rear-view or wing mirrors. Driving by instinct will get you so far but without a rounded view you’re putting yourself in danger and those around you. The same can be said for management and leadership.

You have a significant impact not only on the people around you but society and the economy as well. In a study involving more than 117,000 leaders around the world, Alan Howard and Max Choi found a direct link between leadership and management skills and a country’s productivity.

Still not convinced that self-awareness should be your number one priority? Then let’s take a look at what research tells us.

Relationships with staff

A 2019 study, led by Allan Lee at the University of Exeter, found giving praise and having a good working relationship isn’t always enough to create a sense of loyalty from staff.  People need to believe that the relationship with you, their boss, is seen as important by you. The simplest way to achieve this is by regularly saying your relationship with each of them is important. You can say this one-on-one and in team meetings but you’ve got to mean it. It’ll be obvious if you’re simply going through the motions of saying the right thing. That can have a damaging impact.

For example, in a review of more than 3000 studies and nearly 1 million individual behaviours, Ryan Gottfredson and Herman Aguinis found that employee performance was more influenced by the perception they had of a leader. One positive standard deviation in relationship between employee and leader resulted in, on average, an $85 000 increase in sales volume, 5.60 percent increase in annual sales growth, 1.50 percent increase in sales volume from new accounts, 2.86 percent increase in market share, and 3.59 more new products sold, all in a given calendar year.

Conversely, you want to avoid getting too close with your staff, as this can haven negative consequences too. Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that employees who are too close to their manager are more likely to feel obligated to drop whatever they’re doing in order to meet a request or favour. Even if you don’t expect the other person to meet your request immediately, if it’s a member of staff who is close to you, then they are more likely to drop what they’re doing to meet you need. And we know that interruptions can seriously impact employee performance.

In a now famous study, Gloria Mark found that interruptions and the necessary recovery time took up, on average, around 28% of an employee’s day. The study found that each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted. It took the average employee 25 minutes to return to their original task.

Asking for feedback

Research led by Susan J Ashford at Ross Business School, University of Michigan, found that when CEOs proactively asked their team for feedback it had a direct and positive impact on company performance. Although it’s important to note that the size of the effect was dependent on how confident the overall team was.

And as Adam Grant says on an episode of his podcast, “Always pay attention to the wake you create”, which you can only do if you’re regularly asking for and getting feedback.

The Goldilocks approach to assertiveness

A 2007 study by Daniel R Ames and Francis J Flynn found that managers who are too assertive will damage relationships with others. However, they also found that managers who are not assertive enough won’t drive followers to achieve sufficiently stretching goals. It was the moderately assertive bosses who were rated as the most effective overall, most likely to succeed in the future and as someone people would work with again. A more recent study has found similar effects, with leaders being better liked and more sought after for advice when they hit a ‘sweet spot’ of assertiveness and warmth.

Not sure as to how assertive you are? One director I’m working with wanted to assess his assertiveness, so we’re undertaking a form of 360-feedback which is asking specific questions about this. Why not do the same?

Beware the dark side of leadership

In a recent survey conducted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), one in three employees said they were afraid to approach their manager with problems at work. And 35% stated they didn’t feel their manager treated them or their colleagues fairly. Could it be that those managers are falling prey to the dark side of their personalities?

Some psychologists suggest that our dark side is made up of three things – psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism (game-playing). Research led by Susanne Braun, found ‘three nightmare traits’ at the heart of dark leadership – dishonesty, disagreeableness and carelessness. The impact of these traits were felt more keenly by those whose manager was also highly extroverted. Consequences included higher levels of absenteeism, lower performance and higher turnover.

And in a study involving over 700 people from across six companies in China, it was found that leaders who exhibited self-serving behaviour had a negative impact on psychological safety. When competent leaders were perceived as not being self-serving, but rather they exhibited servant leadership, team psychological safety and subsequently team performance was improved.

Not sure the extent to which you’re exhibiting the dark side? Then why not ask to do the Hogan Development Survey, which is the only personality assessment that identifies the dark side.

The impact of overestimating your ability

Being confident is one thing. Being overconfident, something else entirely. A study by Luis Santos-Pinto found that overconfident leaders regularly put themselves forward for tasks for which they were neither qualified or equipped. The study found that a leader’s lack of competence seriously impacted team performance and morale.

Your impact on your team’s health and wellbeing

Still not convinced about the importance of self-awareness as a manager? Then what about the fact that your style can damage the health of your staff? And in severe cases, could lead to their premature deaths?

In a recent survey carried out by CIPD, almost two-fifths of UK businesses had seen an increase in stress-related absences over the past year, with managers and management style increasingly being blamed. And we know that stress can have terrible consequences.

A 10-year study of more than 3,000 people in Sweden found that those with awful managers were more likely to have a heart attack. And a 2006 study of 804 factory workers in Finland found that those reporting unfair treatment from their managers later suffered higher death rates from heart problems.

This issue affects office workers too. A 20-year study of almost 6,500 male British civil servants found that those with managers who were highly critical, didn’t listen, and rarely, if ever, offered praise, were more likely to suffer from angina, heart attacks and deaths from heart disease.

The impact of email and busy-ness

Lots of the managers and leaders I work with complain about the onslaught of email. Interestingly, I see too many prioritise responding to email over spending time with staff. Responding to email makes us feel like we’re doing something. It’s a tangible, albeit shallow, output that we can tick off. Relationships, on the other hand, can be difficult and intangible. No wonder so many managers spend more time working on their inbox than building relationships with their staff.

But as a 2018 study from Michigan State University found, employees spend, on average, more than 90 minutes per day just on email. In particular, the researchers found that managers who focused on email demands were more likely to limit their leadership behaviours in order to reduce feeling overwhelmed and unproductive. This meant they were seen as less effective managers.

The benefits of self-awareness and emotional intelligence

It still amazes me how undervalued and misunderstood emotional intelligence is. And yet, it’s a fundamental for success as a manager and leader. And as a World Economic Forum report suggests, without emotional intelligence you’re unlikely to survive, or indeed thrive, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This is reinforced by a recent study from New York University, which found that managers who can effectively read emotions in others are better able to evaluate a team’s performance. And it’s not just your team that benefits from higher levels of emotional intelligence. You benefit too.

In a meta-analysis, reviewing over 1000 articles and studies , researchers found people with higher emotional intelligence tended to have higher job satisfaction, be better performers and have higher organisational commitment.

Being a good people manager needn’t be complex. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic said in a recent piece in People Management magazine,

If you have people skills, intelligence, curiosity and integrity then you will be a good manager.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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