When you ask employees why they are unhappy at work, or quit their jobs, the answers come back most often with the manager to blame. (Photo courtesy of jcomp for Freepik)
This has powerful implications. It means that making average leaders better (specifically by helping them be more transformational) can have just as much of a positive impact as minimizing destructive leadership.
– Daisy Grewal for Scientific American
Oh my gosh! They’re speaking my language!
I’ve known for a long time now of the transformative power, on workplace culture, of training managers. Now, there’s research linking the power of managers, good or bad, to affect mental health.
When you ask employees why they are unhappy at work, or quit their jobs, the answers come back most often with the manager to blame. Organizational leaders like to tell themselves people leave because they’re getting more money or better opportunities elsewhere (and that is true in some cases), but the biggest reason people quit—and have done for a long time now—is the manager. Even so, most companies devote few to no resources to train their managers.
The Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, as published in Scientific American, provides compelling reasons to support, coach, and train managers. They tested how leadership affects mental health. The link between leadership and mental health is not news—rather, it’s the style of leadership and its effect on mental health in concern.
What they found is two leadership styles have the most influence on employee well-being:
- The Transformational Leadership style was first defined about 50 years ago, yet it’s not commonly in use, even though it should be by now. This style seeks to inspire by painting a compelling vision and encouraging employees, paying attention to the needs of the individual. This style had, by a long shot, the most positive results on well-being.
- The other most influential style is one that is, sadly, still in common use. Destructive leadership styles, leaning heavily on the “stick” versus the “carrot” have the largest detrimental effect on mental health. Those of us who have worked for harsh managers won’t be surprised at that. I still bear the scars of managers who mocked me, yelled at me, and gaslit me. In conversations with employees across industries, including the trades, I’ve met a great many people with similar bad-manager stories (enough to fill a book!). Aggressive, hostile, bullying behaviour has a negative effect on mental health and profoundly affects psychological safety.
As we remember bad managers most clearly, it would make sense that this destructive leadership style would be more impactful on employee mental health. Yet, the research finds that the positive effects of good managers is as strong as the negative effects of bad.
In the trades, we put strong emphasis on the physical health of employees. We provide proof of this importance with annual compliance training, workplace safety talks, having health and safety officers in place, and requiring that every employee meets a certain knowledge and behaviour standard. But, how much attention do we place on psychological safety?
Helping managers be better leaders can truly help to improve the mental health of employees.
The recent pandemic cast a pretty sharp eye on physical and mental well-being. For the first time, in my memory at least, we cared about how people were feeling mentally. The pandemic, and the lock-down we were subject to, led to rising levels of anxiety, depression, fear, stress, and feelings of seclusion and lack of connection. Traditionally, this isn’t an area that business ventures into. Yet, these mental health issues posed real concerns around productivity, staffing, and customer satisfaction, amongst other parameters. Employees began looking to their companies, and their managers, for support and guidance through these issues. As a result, companies are now considering psychological safety as part of their safety imperative.
Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. It means that employees feel free to speak up and contribute ideas without fear of retribution. It’s a key factor in healthy teams and organizations. Creating a safe space for employees to bring their whole selves to work, to speak up and voice concerns, and to make mistakes is a key part of the leader’s job.
Leaders, here are some thought-provoking questions to help you measure your team’s psychological safety:
Ask your team members for their thoughts on
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject other for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
If you have sincerely created an environment where people feel they can voice their concerns in person, then good for you. I’d suspect, however, that most of you might want to put these questions out to employees via anonymous survey.
Once you ask the questions, and get responses back, you’re going to have to decide how to address them. This is a biggie. When you put out a survey, employees expect you’ll do something based on what you learn. It’s been my experience that little gets done, so no wonder employees are skeptical about the value of these surveys. So, imagine the impact if you take action on their voiced concerns!
Looking at the questions above, every one of them can be affected greatly by manager behaviour. Better management, as in Transformational Leadership, can lead to healthier, more psychologically safe, workplace cultures overall. This type of culture can kick off a virtuous cycle which attracts better employees and better leaders. With the current difficulties in attracting and retaining technicians that most skilled trades organizations are facing, this could be the edge you need.
Helping managers be better leaders can truly help to improve the mental health of employees. Their manager has the greatest influence on how engaged an employee is in their work, so it makes sense to invest in the development of your people leaders. Through soft skills training, focused on developing managers, they’ll be better able to emotionally connect with their team members and inspire them to keep growing and achieving great things. This collective action can lead to big things for your company, and its employees.