How social connections can inform your leadership ability

High-quality social connections aren’t just a predictor of happiness, they can also help people flourish at work and develop their leadership ability, say the authors of Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership

The new currency of the Internet Age and the IoE (internet of everything) is not intellectual capital; it is social capital – the collective value of the people you know and what you will do for each other.

When social connections are strong and numerous, there’s more trust, reciprocity, information flow, collective action, and elevated wellbeing. Having strong social relationships is the best predictor of human happiness, trumping wealth, income and material possessions; and research has shown that those who fail to achieve this most basic need experience loneliness, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, obesity, and anger.

You need to find ways to get connected to the information, resources and influence you will need to make a difference. In doing so, figure out substantive ways to connect your colleagues with one another and with those outside the boundary of your group or team who are part of other key networks.

The importance of social connections has been dramatically illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. While nearly everyone around the world was ordered to maintain ‘physical distance’, the yearning for social connection increased. People invented all kinds of ways to continue to interact with their fellow human beings. Virtual coffee breaks and cocktail hours popped up immediately after people had to shelter in their homes. Residents stood on their balconies and sang to each other. Friends and family organised drive-by birthday and graduation celebrations. The demand for virtual gathering services nearly broke the internet. There was seemingly no end to the creative ways that people invented to stay connected to each other, even in the worst of the crisis.

Strengthening the bonds of connectedness

The most well-connected individuals are typically those who are involved in activities outside their immediate job function or discipline, and who avoid being too strongly typecast in one field, function, administrative body, or community. Find ways to meet people from a wide range of units, departments, projects, and professions. While specialisation has its benefits, from a leadership perspective you don’t want to get stuck in a rut. If your connections are only in your specialty, you will be less influential than if your connections cross a lot of boundaries. When it comes to social connections, there’s a payoff in mining deep and wide.

Greater connectedness can also be fostered when you and your colleagues have enough confidence in one another’s relationships to ask for help when needed. The impulse to give help when requested has been shown to be a powerful, automatic, and emotional response formed early in life. However, in many situations people underestimate how willing others would be to provide assistance when requested. There is a social cost to saying ‘no’ when someone asks for help. The person can be seen as uncaring, unreasonable, insensitive, and even cruel. Saying ‘yes’, by contrast, is a more positive and rewarding experience, and agreeing to help or cooperate strengthens the bond of connectedness between people. By making someone else happy, the person who has agreed to help also feels good about himself or herself and strengthens the bond of connectedness between them.

Researchers have demonstrated that people underestimate by nearly 50% the likelihood of receiving a positive response when requesting assistance, and this leads to lost opportunities, like prospective friends, colleagues, and clients going uncontacted, and squandering chances to increase connectedness. When you feel a sense of connection with someone else, you are more likely to volunteer your assistance, as is often demonstrated by onlookers who are most predisposed to help emergency victims if they feel they share something with them.

Developing leadership ability through high-quality connections

Feeling connected to the people you are working with enhances feelings of wellbeing and fosters greater commitment to colleagues. Research documents that high-quality connections contribute to people flourishing, resulting in better health, higher cognitive functioning, broader thinking, and stronger resilience. Individuals with high-quality relationships also have a better sense of whom to trust and not trust. They are more open, and they more fully understand themselves and the viewpoints of others.

You can more effectively develop your leadership abilities by connecting to people who can teach you about the skills you would like to acquire and the things you would like to achieve. Find out about their struggles, hardships and mistakes as well as their accomplishments.

Consider connecting with people who are not particularly well known but who nonetheless exhibit deep competence, unswerving dedication, and a good sense of who they are. Most importantly, select people who make you feel good about yourself. After all, the purpose of these relationships is to encourage and inspire you to be your best version of yourself.

Travis Carrigan, a senior engineer, told us that he’s been doing exactly this for years, which has led to some great opportunities and collaborative work. ‘These relationships,’ he says, ‘are phenomenal at helping me become a better leader, listener, and engineer.’

Limitations of virtual connections

What about virtual connections? Aren’t they a good way to foster collaboration and build trust? There is no question that virtual connections are prolific, and in a global economy no organisation could function if people had to fly halfway around the world to exchange information, make decisions, or resolve disputes. Proof of this can be found with the exponential growth in virtual communications during the global Covid-19 pandemic, and that demand has led to the development of new apps and platforms to meet the need. With a large percentage of people working from home and almost all educational institutions’ classes going online, virtual connections became the most frequent way in which people communicated, learned and conducted business.

That said, the stroke of a key, the click of a mouse, or the switch of a video doesn’t get you the same results that an in-person conversation does. In an era that is becoming more and more dependent on virtual connections, there’s a temptation to believe that such connections automatically lead to better relationships and greater trust. Unfortunately, virtual trust is much more difficult to both build and maintain than is trust developed in-person. Even among Gen Z employees, who make up 20% of today’s workforce, 72% indicate they prefer face-to-face communication at work.

Virtual trust, like virtual reality, is still one step removed from the real thing. People are social animals; it is their nature to want to interact face to face. Bits and bytes and pixilated images make for a very fragile social foundation. As handy as virtual tools such as email, voice mail, apps, and texts are for staying in touch, they are no substitute for positive face-to-face interactions.

This is an edited extract from Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership: How to Make a Difference Regardless of Your Title, Role, or Authority, by James M Kouzes and Barry Z Posner (Wiley, 2021).

Creating a high-performing hybrid workplace: what should leaders do?

Making the shift to a successful hybrid workplace demands a different leadership approach – one that moves away from micromanagement and towards a culture of trust and transparency, says Hult Professor, Vlatka Hlupic

The global economy has been left in a fragile state following lockdown measures, many of which have been prolonged at the time of writing this article, leaving further uncertainty on how businesses will recover. What is certain, however, is that business leaders and organisations must adapt and recalibrate to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world and create high-performing hybrid workplaces.

Instead of a traditional top-down leadership approach based on command and control, hierarchical decision-making and micromanagement; high-performing hybrid workplaces will need a different leadership approach which is more shared and distributed. This type of leadership corresponds to levels four and five of a framework, called ‘The Management Shift’. In this framework, there are five levels of an individual mindset and a corresponding organisational culture at every level. Each level is characterised by specific thinking patterns, behaviour, language used, leadership style and organisational outcomes.

Five levels of overriding mindset and organisational culture

At level one, a dominant mindset is ‘lifeless’; culture is ‘apathetic’, based on fear and employees are isolated and disengaged. At level two, the individual mindset is ‘reluctant’; culture is ‘stagnating’ and people do the minimum they can get away with, just to get paid. There is a blame culture, and employees feel overwhelmed. At level three, the mindset is ‘controlled’ and culture is ‘orderly’. The leadership style is based on traditional command and control, employees are micromanaged, and they do what they are told to do, but they are not purposeful, fully engaged, or passionate for their work.

At level four, the dominant mindset becomes ‘enthusiastic’; culture is ‘collaborative’ and there is a strong teamwork ethos. Collaboration, integrity, purpose, transparency, accountability, and a caring culture are embedded in this level. This is also the level where a ‘Big Shift’ takes place and where highly engaged and inventive performance begins.

At level five, the mindset becomes ‘limitless’; culture is ‘unbounded’ and anything seems to be possible to achieve. This is where great innovations are developed and big problems for humanity are solved. However, this level can only be sustained for a limited time, as employees will ‘burn out’ if they work continually at this pace.

So how do leaders make the ‘Big Shift’ in their leadership styles to ensure their organisations are led in a way that gets the best out of their people in this new hybrid workplace?

Practices and behaviours that leaders should embrace

Leaders should support autonomy and collaboration and encourage experimentation with new ideas. They can influence employees indirectly through empowerment and inspiration, and create the conditions for change, where they delegate responsibilities, not tasks. Delegating tasks is micromanagement. When leaders delegate responsibilities, they show that they trust their employees to do their work well and employees will decide when, where and how they are going to do their work. They will be accountable for the deliverables – this is the key because, during a time of remote working, it is impossible to micromanage and control how and when the work gets done.

Leaders should also decentralise decision-making based on knowledge rather than a formal position in organisational hierarchy. People with the best knowledge, with the best insight into customer’s needs and requirements are best suited to make certain decisions, rather than somebody at the top of the hierarchy who doesn’t interact with customers.

Leaders need to develop cultures based on trust and transparency. This is particularly important for the hybrid world of work. It is vital to give a clear strategic direction for employees and communicate that well. That will create a sense of security and resilience, which will then also support the wellbeing of employees. Leaders also must support reward mechanisms that are based on contribution and meritocracy, especially as they cannot closely control employees that work remotely. They should focus on the results achieved, not on the time spent in the office or time spent at work.

Leaders need to use, and act, on feedback – and that should go both ways. In hybrid workplaces, feedback is even more important, not as a traditional yearly performance review, but rather as a continuous feedback conversation. Leaders should hone and use their social intelligence and emotional intelligence to get, and act on, the clues when something is not right even if employees are not directly sitting with them in the office all the time.

Successful leaders of hybrid workplaces allow some flexibility with procedures, rules and regulations, within reason. Even in heavily regulated and compliant environments, such as financial industry, there are still parts of the business that need to be creative.  Here, leaders can relinquish control and allow employees to take their own initiative, make decisions and pursue some of their own initiatives for the benefit of an organisation, especially when innovation is important part of what organisation does. Without that, no progress and no innovation will emerge.

Leaders that embrace a level four mindset and behave like level four, and occasionally level five leaders, will create the conditions that are conducive to successful, highly productive and engaging hybrid workplaces.

To this end, it is important to allow people to work from home for at least half of the working week. At the same time, leaders should create office environments which entice people to spend some time there, interacting and networking. Human connections often lead to the creation of the best ideas.

Every change starts with one single step that creates ripples. What is one action that you can start implementing from next week to help create a high-performing hybrid workplace?

Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic is a Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. She is the founder and CEO of the training, coaching and consultancy firm, Management Shift Solutions as well as the author of The Management Shift and Humane Capital.

Only ethical leaders can study power safely

Ethical leaders who value their souls need not fear the study of power. They are, in fact, the only ones who can study it safely, says Douglas Board, author of Elites and Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the Business School of City, University of London

The day when resembling Niccolò Machiavelli unnerved me was when I realised that he had written comedy. I’m a Christian who wants to build a moral world; so was he. I’m a senior courtier (an executive coach, previously a headhunter) who has seen power close up, exercised some myself and thought about it a lot; so was he. But comedy was the cherry on the cake [the writer of this article is the author of the campus satire, MBA]. With hindsight, humorists love to see the world through two lenses at once, which is a valuable power skill.

One floor down from the top

Machiavelli’s The Prince (published in 1532) is a survival guide for Renaissance leaders at the top. My latest book, Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul? (2021) opens instead with a survival guide for leaders, managers and professionals who work closely with the top (the C-suite) but aren’t quite there. The book opens with the true story of a fight between the top (a big league CEO) and one of my hidden heroes (an acting COO); this time the acting COO wins.

This difference disguises a similarity. Machiavelli wrote to make the world a better, more moral, place. So he wrote for the individuals – princes in his day – with the power to do that. Elites is written for the prince’s corporate and professional lieutenants for exactly the same reason.

Let’s call them the ‘D-suite’ – one floor down from the top. And ‘D’ is for danger: it’s a dangerous place to earn a living. Knowledge can be dangerous. When Marie Curie investigated radium, she may have had anxious days but there was an innocence to her risk-taking. Terra incognita isn’t planted with warning signs. Her search killed her and, to this day, her notebooks are too radioactive to touch. By contrast, if you or I decide to investigate power, there are warning signs. The biggest of these is silence.

For 18 years, I was a headhunter for the C-suite and the D-suite, working across organisations large and small, blue-chip and entrepreneurial, for-profit and governmental, academic and community-based. I did a doctorate when I finished because I was convinced that there was something true across all this work of which I couldn’t find a trace in articles in Harvard Business Review, let alone books on selecting people. A year into my doctorate the penny dropped: the unspoken word was power.

Ethical leaders’ fear of power is misplaced

Once you notice ‘power’ as a topic, you see all the other warning signs. For example, Machiavelli’s terrible reputation, the saying ‘power corrupts’, or the all-too-prevalent and disgraceful behaviour by the powerful (as shown by the #metoo movement). The result, as Stanford Professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, laments in Power: why some have it and others don’t (2010), is that ethical leaders don’t study power; they value their souls too much. The result of this is that too much of the world managed by a**holes.

But this fear of power is wrong. It’s caught up in a wider mistake about the nature of individuality, especially as understood in the anglophone world. The mistake is to think power is simply resources or techniques for getting more of what you want, regardless of what you want. If you think like that, then power will corrupt and dehumanise you; it will be like radium.

Because to be human is not just to want things (as dogs or economists would have it) – be those things chocolate, designer jeans or freedom. Instead, we have wants about our wants. We wish we wanted certain things and did not want others. This is called ‘ethics’.

How to study power safely

I’m delighted to report that ethical leaders can study power safely. That news means, if we can survive long enough on this planet, a better world is possible. To study and use power safely:

  • Politics and ethics must be taught side by side. No one can be politically competent without critically questioning what we want, why we want it and whether we are happy to want it – which is ethics. Consequently, only ethical leaders can study power safely.
  • Anyone who teaches power should be as transparent as possible about their (probably complex) motivations.
  • Our teacher should show up as a flawed, life-size human being. Without this, we cannot know that they fully understand what being human involves.

Elites weaves together three strands – a close analysis of the C- and D-suite worlds; a searching inquiry into ideas about success (not least my own); and warts and all descriptions of standout incidents from my own journey.

Notice that the three criteria rule out purely scientific studies. Marie Curie studied scientifically and it killed her; the social nature of power is much more complex than the physics of radioactivity. Pfeffer’s book tries to be scientific (presenting neutral laws and techniques) but what saves it is his humanity leaking through. He has a moral objective: he doesn’t want ethical leaders to be exploited as saps.

Also exposed are ‘pornographies of power’, like Robert Greene’s bestseller, The 48 Laws of Power (1998). Greene doubles down on ways for you to get more of whatever you want, whatever your desires may be. Studies like this dehumanise the reader as well as whatever ‘objects’ they try to manipulate.

That ethical leaders can study power safely is news; good news. Even better news is that only ethical leaders can.

Douglas Board is an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the Business School (formerly Cass, soon Bayes) of City, University of London. He is the author of Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul? (2021), the product of his years of experience as a headhunter. He is also the author of the campus satire, MBA, and Time of Lies, an exploration of the collapse of democracy.

How to treat your team like a group of talented artists

Leading by example and inspiring others means embodying your company’s vision and its underlying values. Gerald Leonard, author of Workplace Jazz, offers five ways to treat your team like a group of talented artists

Donald Robinson, a Grammy-nominated producer, composer and pianist who worked with Grover Washington Junior – a hugely popular saxophonist often credited as a founder of the smooth jazz genre who collaborated with Bill Withers on Just the Two of Us – called it the ‘burning bus tour’.

Grover’s band was near Denver on its way to the Aspen Jazz Festival. The tour bus was going up and down the mountains. Then one of the brakes started smoking. The band members were sleeping in back while the bus pulled over and the driver ran outside. The band started to stir, hearing the driver hustling around looking for a fire extinguisher. The driver sprayed the tires but they caught on fire. The band, now fully awake, scrambled off the bus.

Turning a bad situation into a good one

It burned down in 10 minutes, just as the sun was rising. By the time the fire department got there, the bus was pretty much gone. Later, some vans arrived to take the band to a retirement home where they waited for transportation to Aspen.

At the retirement home, Grover pulled out his horn and started playing. Then Donald started on an upright piano while the older people were getting up, dancing, and having fun. Grover’s band turned a bad situation into a really good one. The retirement home loved it, and the band loved it.

Leading by example

Finally, the band arrives in Aspen where the air is thin, you have to really control your breathing. Walk a block leaves you winded. Due to the altitude, the concert venue has oxygen tanks on the side of the stage. When you get a little dizzy, you go put the oxygen on, then go back out.

Grover was playing hard, with passion and joy. He’d play, run to the side and grab the oxygen tank, then come back out and play some more. Then more tank. Even though it was difficult, he just kept playing. His stamina and drive was infectious. It kept the whole band energised.

Like Grover, the head of an organisation must lead by example — not only in their vision, but also by demonstrating that vision in action and the underlying values that support the vision.

Five ways to inspire your team

Do you want to inspire your team in the same way that Grover inspired his band? If so, how can you treat your team like a group of talented artists?

1. Provide expert guidance: expert guidance is required when your team seeks growth. They want to be led by someone who has real-world experience as well as strategic and innovative ideas that they have gained from continuous study and working on their craft. Think of going on a safari. Who would you rather have: someone who gives you a brochure or someone who has been there and can show you all the risks, issues and dangers to look out for as well as the beautiful scenery to observe?

2. Share your background and experience with your team: world-class athletes and musicians continuously seek advice from coaches who have a well-rounded background. They find someone who has a lot of coaching experience and who has already worked through and corrected many of the challenges they are facing.

3. Listen, collaborate, and communicate to connect and increase trust: when you are working with an experienced coach, you have someone to collaborate with and bounce ideas off of.  Take advantage of having someone who can help you obtain a different perspective because of their experience and knowledge, which in turn gives you a competitive advantage.

4. Set an example that accelerates the change and performance you want to see: reap the benefits of focusing on things that will make the most significant impact on the change that you are seeking.  By picking a few things to work on you can accelerate the time it takes to achieve your goals.

5. Demonstrate your desire to increase your team’s capacity and capabilities: coaching increases the capacity of the person being coached. It helps them accomplish more and improves their ability to get more done in less time. By having a dedicated professional coach or engaging in peer-to-peer coaching, your team will be able to accomplish more, compared to a team that is not being engaged this way by their manager or leader.

Gerald Leonard is a professional bassist and the CEO at Principles of Execution, (dba Turnberry Premiere) a consulting practice with 20+ years’ experience and past and present clients that include Verizon, Medicare, and Hewlett-Packard (HP). He is the author of Workplace Jazz: How to Improvise and Culture Is The Bass: 7 Steps To Creating High-Performing Teams.

1O lessons every leader can learn from their pets

From resilience to empathy, pets have much to teach their owners and can help people to develop numerous traits that are essential to becoming a successful leader in the 21st century

It is well-known that dogs and other pets bring joy and happiness into our lives but what lessons can business graduates and future leaders learn from their pets?

Lesson 1: resilience and willpower

The path to success is often stormy with huge obstacles that block our way. Often, we are inclined to take the easy way out and simply give up. In contrast, animals don’t give up due to their instinct for survival – even as pets. We should follow their incredible resilience and willpower as this is one of the most important traits of successful leaders.

Lesson 2: positive relationships

Relationships with team and other staff members can make or break a professional career. Owning a pet can enhance our careers and help us climb the corporate ladder. In a 2018 study from Banfield Pet Hospital, 62% of surveyed c-suite executives said that childhood pets had had a positive impact on their ability to build rapport with co-workers and clients; and 79% believed that co-workers with pets were hard workers. When we build great, high-performing teams by having a positive and nurturing relationships with them, the chances of becoming a successful and respected leader increase.

Lesson 3: creativity

Businesses rely not only on leadership and communication skills, but also on creativity. A total of 84% of c-suite executives who grew up with a childhood pet said they were creative in the Banfield Pet Hospital study, and an amazing 77% said they come up with business ideas while walking their dog.

A 2010 paper led by Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Psychology, meanwhile, found that cat people were 11% more likely to be open than dog people. Openness is a characteristic that is often said to enhance creativity and one secret to business success is to think out of the box, and to innovate and create completely new products or services that appeal to customers.

Lesson 4: conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is a key element of success. Gosling’s research concluded that dog people were more conscientious than cat people. However, owning any pet will increase our conscientiousness by around double compared with non-pet owners, according to a 2011 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Dog people tend to be ‘planners’ – and are likely to be more self-disciplined and have a keen sense of duty. Proper planning in business is essential to avoid unexpected project holes that can be detrimental. Self-discipline is the signature mark of a great leader who serves as a role model for his team.

Lesson 5: non-traditional thinking

Cat people were more likely to be more curious than dog people in the Gosling research. Combined with a tendency to be more open than dog people, cat people have qualities needed for non-traditional thinking. Great leaders do not follow traditional thinking, they have new ideas, look at situations from a different angle and amaze their teams with unexpected points of views.

Lesson 6: being more extrovert

It is well-established that extroverts have it easier in their professional lives and experience greater success than introverts. Pet owners are found to be more extroverted than non-pet owners, according to the aforementioned 2011 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In a 2019 report from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), 51% of participants claimed their pet helps them feel less shy. The Gosling research, meanwhile, found that dog people more extroverted than cat people. Outgoing, enthusiastic and energetic character traits are essential for leaders to express themselves, make deals, convince their customers, and create a formidable team bond.

Lesson 7: communication skills

Communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, are of utmost importance for leadership and business

success. The easiest way to learn is to observe our animals. In the Banfield Pet Hospital survey, 92% of surveyed c-suite executives said that they learned to pay attention to nonverbal communication from their pets. Pets understand even the slightest hint of our body language. Understanding non-verbal communication in negotiations and in meetings can provide the clue to a successful outcome, as it helps to estimate the reaction of the counterpart. This helps us to improve and clarify our communication, which helps us to become better negotiators and leaders.

Lesson 8: dealing with rejection

Every successful leader must deal with rejection; the higher he climbs, the more rejection he will experience. The 2011 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study revealed that pet owners deal better with social rejection than people without pets. A 2016 study led by Arcadia University’s Christina Brown, meanwhile, found that momentary feelings of social rejection can be soothed by thinking about a dog, recalling its name, or even simply by having a dog nearby. Therefore, positive thoughts of one’s pet is an immense help towards building a strong shield against rejection. That would explain why so many famous CEOs of big companies are pet lovers.

Lesson 9: dominance

A certain level of dominance is necessary for c-suite executives who get people to carry out their decisions effectively. It has been shown that a preference for dog ownership can elevate a person’s ‘dominance score’ predict a preference for dogs. This might be one reason why the Banfield Pet Hospital survey found that 83% of CEOs and c-suite executives have dogs. No leader can be successful if they are not dominant, but dominance should be used in a positive way to carry out decisions that better the company and team, rather than being used to intimidate team members. 

Lesson 10: empathic leadership

The Banfield Pet Hospital survey also found strong parallels between pet ownership and leadership skills. Some 92% of surveyed c-suite executives attributed pets to having helped them develop the ability to discipline subordinates; and 79% regarded pet ownership as important to developing better organisational skills.

People living with dogs can most easily understand the importance of ‘bio-empathic leadership’, which is the ability to look at things from nature’s point of view. Instead of taking, these leaders give back and help nurture their organisations, as dogs do with their families or packs. This is the kind of leadership we should all strive for. Empathic leaders work towards giving back to their company and not just their own personal success. This kind of leadership regards team members as vital contributors to success and not as interchangeable human resources in an organisational structure and static bureaucracy that doesn’t care about anything beyond its immediate business goals.

Conclusion

Pets can serve as fabulous role models for all leaders and especially for business graduates who are starting out and making their mark in the corporate world. They can help improve both our personal character traits and the leadership skills needed for greater success in our professional lives.

Margit Gabriele Muller is Executive Director and Chief Veterinarian at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital in the United Arab Emirates, and the author of Your Pet, Your Pill. She holds a PhD in veterinary medicine as well as an executive MBA from Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow, Scotland.

The power of purpose: fuelling employees’ motivation

An account of how a walk into the unknown and the plight of late 19th-century farmers in the southern Netherlands provided a powerful means of injecting purpose into employees of Rabobank, from the book Alive at Work  

At some point, we’ve all felt underwhelmed by what we do at work – bored and creatively bankrupt. In these moments, we’ve lost our zest for our jobs and accepted working as a sort of long commute to the weekend. Yet even though we’ve all been there, it can be frustrating when our people aren’t living up to their potential. It’s exasperating when employees are disengaged and don’t seem to view their work as meaningful. It can be hard to remember that employees don’t usually succumb to these negative responses for a lack of trying. They want to feel motivated. They seek meaning from their jobs.

But their organisations are letting them down. We can do a much better job at maintaining their engagement with their work. But first, we need to understand that employees’ lack of engagement isn’t really a motivational problem. It’s a biological one. Here’s the thing: many organisations are deactivating the part of employees’ brains called the ‘seeking systems’. Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking systems, they release dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure – that makes us want to explore more.

With small but consequential nudges and interventions from leaders, it’s possible to activate employees’ seeking systems by encouraging them to play to their strengths, experiment, and feel a sense of purpose.

The power of purpose

One of the triggers that activates the seeking system is purpose. Purpose is energising. It lights up our systems and gives us that jolt of dopamine. But because purpose is personal and emotional, it is difficult for leaders to instill it in others. It’s one thing to read about something in a business book and another to put it into practice. So how do we create the feeling of purpose and make sure it lasts? To have a shot at success, you need to help employees witness their impact on others, as the case of Rick Garrelfs shows.

Rick, who was a leader at Rabobank for 18 years, told me about an experience he developed to help high-potential employees understand the meaning of their work. Working with a consulting organisation, Garrelfs and his team told the 60 employees: ‘At 5am, be at Eindhoven [a city in the northern part of the Netherlands] Central station.’ They did not divulge any further information to the participants, which naturally caused some curiosity and concerns. Some of the people called and protested: ‘But the trains are not running at 5am’ or ‘I live far away, so I will need a hotel.’ The team responded to these concerns by saying: ‘Yes, that is correct’ to retain the mystery.

People started arriving at the station from 4:30am, and the team made sure the café was open and coffee and rolls were available. Around 5:15am, Garrelfs started walking from the station (the group followed naturally at that point) into a waiting coach, which took them on a 30-minute drive into the dark, away from town. The bus stopped, the group exited and started walking into the fields, with Garrelfs in front with a light, and someone from the consulting firm with a light at the rear.

After 30 minutes, they arrived at a line of trees, where they saw a man standing with a candle. As the group gathered around him, still in the dark of early morning, the man started to speak about the situation of farmers in the late 19th century in the southern Netherlands. He spoke about the farmers’ daily problems, their poverty, and the harshness of their existence. He described how the Dutch priest, Pater Gerlacus van den Elsen, used his local influence to bring farmers together, so that those that had some money could lend it to those that didn’t for investment.

As the man spoke, the sun slowly started to light the scene – the landscape and the group of people – and the group recognised the speaker. He was Bert Mertens, Senior Executive of Cooperative Affairs and Governance of Rabobank, and a direct report to the executive board. Bert was seen as the ‘conscience’ of cooperative thinking in the bank. His core message: Rabobank emerged from the misery of farmers, and we should never forget that.

Bert then walked the group across the farm fields, to a house where they were served breakfast by the farmers, who were long-time members of Rabobank. The farmers talked about the life of farming now, the difficulty of keeping a medium-sized farm alive, and what they did to make ends meet.

Although this had only been the start of the first day of a programme, years later the participants picked out this particular moment as perhaps the most important experience for them in terms of understanding the meaning of Rabobank.

Changing the way employees think and feel about their work

It is one thing for a leader to talk in a meeting about the mission of connecting banking to agriculture. This can be logical and strategic, and a leader can even put pictures of farms on the PowerPoint deck. It is another thing to have a personal experience: to walk in the fields, to connect with nature in the early morning, to eat and talk with the farmers who you serve as a bank.

Imagine how this firsthand experience could change employees’ stories about why they do what they do, and how it might help newcomers fashion their own purpose story. This sense of purpose could help employees make decisions that align with Rabobank’s purpose, but also help them see their work as something worth doing.

This is the power of purpose: it activates the seeking system and makes life feel better. When we understand the powerful humanistic results of purpose – not to mention the economic benefits of building purpose into businesses – then our quest as leaders changes. Our mission moves from ‘how can I make this job more efficient, predictable, and controlled?’ to ‘how can I give my team firsthand experiences that allow them to personalise the meaning of their work?’ This is a powerful new way to think about employment – as a chance to light up employees’ seeking systems instead of shutting them down.

This is an edited excerpt from Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do by Dan Cable (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).

Why should anyone be led by you? Know yourself and show yourself

Leadership begins with you – and you will not succeed as a leader unless you have some sense of who you are. Your colleagues – potential followers – have a simple but basic need: they want to be led by a person, not by a corporate apparatchik, say Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones

It is unlikely that you will be able to inspire, arouse, excite, or motivate people unless you can show them who you are, what you stand for, and what you can and cannot do.

To be yourself, you must know yourself and show yourself— enough. Put another way, you must be sufficiently self-aware and also prepared to self-declare.

Comfort with origins is one aspect of people who combine self-awareness with the ability to disclose. Whatever the complexities of the cultural variation, we have been consistently struck by the ways in which effective leaders can articulate the relationship between where they came from and who they are.

For example, Patti Cazzato, a senior executive working with retailing giant Gap at the time we met, is from rural Kansas. In her job she has to deal with sophisticated, urban New York designers. Patti told us that when she began these working relationships, she felt slightly overawed by the encounters—as if she were still wearing Kansas dust on her clothes. She felt gauche and inhibited among her new colleagues. It took a trip back to her roots for her to rediscover herself and bring her own authenticity back into her leadership: to be herself in the new context.

As individuals move through life, they experience mobility—social and geographical, within and between organizations, across and up and down hierarchies. And this experience of mobility can disrupt an individual’s sense of self.

Our observation of effective leaders is that as well as being comfortable with their origins, they are also at ease with mobility. They take themselves with them to new contexts. They adapt, of course, but they retain their authenticity in the new situation.

If comfort with origins and ease with mobility help with authenticity, how can aspiring leaders grow these capabilities? What follows is a list of pragmatic suggestions.

Seek out new experiences and new contexts

This can involve changes as small as seeking to lead outside your function or as large as seeking to lead in an entirely different context. We interviewed a tough CFO who worked in a drug rehab unit on a one-month sabbatical. He reported that it forced him to reexamine his own leadership behaviours and to reconnect with his fundamental values. One critical characteristic here is that his hierarchical position as CFO meant nothing in the new context. There was just him and those he sought to lead and help. A corollary of this is that to develop self-knowledge, you should avoid comfort zones and routines. Developing self-knowledge requires active experimentation. Routines, in and of themselves, inhibit this experimentation drive.

Get honest feedback

Effective leaders seek out sources of straight feedback. We have had very good results from carefully collected workplace feedback (including 360degree feedback). But there is also a role for coaches who can give an external perspective. But perhaps the best feedback comes from honest colleagues and those who know us best: our family and friends.

Explore biography

Many of the leaders we have both interviewed and observed have had a deep and intimate knowledge of the contexts that made them what they are. Explore these; talk to others who may share the same experiences. Self-knowledge grows from coming to terms with the events that make us what we are.

Return to roots

Patti Cazzato’s trip back to Texas reinforced the sense of self. Spend time with people who know you without the trappings of organizational power.

Find a third place.

The American writer Ray Oldenburg has put forward the convincing argument that after work and family, we all need a third place: somewhere we can make associations and develop a sense of self, freed from the obligations of work and family roles.

Not all of these will work for everyone; try to find techniques that help you. But if you cannot develop a refined awareness of what works for you, then your abilities as a leader will be limited. After all, knowing yourself, being yourself, and disclosing yourself are vital ingredients of effective leadership.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?: What It Takes to be an Authentic Leader by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones.

Rob Goffee is Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School

Gareth Jones has alternated between academic and corporate roles, teaching at LBS too, and also the University of East Anglia, Henley, INSEAD, and currently, IE Business School, in Madrid. He has held senior HR roles at Polygram and the BBC.