By Laura Putnam
March 1, 2023
All of these well-trotted expressions speak to an outdated model of leadership. In a world turned upside down by the pandemic and with the workplace redefining itself, this model no longer holds – especially when it comes to our mental health, just look at the stats.
- Rates of depression have tripled for Americans.
- Levels of loneliness have skyrocketed, especially for young people.
- Rates of suicide are on the rise (again).
Mental health is an issue for everyone – even at the highest levels. A Deloitte report found that 70% of top leaders are seriously considering quitting for mental health reasons. While it’s affecting everyone to some degree, some people are more affected than others. Factors such as gender and line of work are leading to a disproportionate impact. Construction workers, for example, have the second highest risk for suicide, second only to veterans. And, while more women suffer from depression and are more likely to contemplate suicide, men are three times more likely to die by suicide.
Having worked with over 200 organizations and trained over 15,000 managers and leaders, I see a clear pattern: The organizations and industries that need this new kind of leadership most, are often the ones who resist it the most.
Case in point, I recently delivered a keynote speech to a group of (mostly male) leaders, all working in the construction industry. The moment I stepped on to the stage – with the title “Mental Health at Work: Who’s Responsible?” beaming out over the audience – the resistance was palpable. Most of my audience of burly guys were leaning back, arms folded, shifting in their seats and ready to end the conversation before we had even started. The intransigence then blossomed into a full-out rebellion when I asked my audience to respond to a series of prompts, as a way of driving home the point that leaders hold responsibility for addressing the growing mental health crisis. Most refused to take the bait. After the talk, my host kindly assured me that, “Some of them got it, and over time, others will too.”
Even if they’re not “getting it,” there is an unmistakable link between leadership and well-being. For example, longstanding research from Gallup shows that managers alone account for 70% of the variance of team members’ engagement with both their work and well-being. The impact is so deep, it can be deadly. A frightening Swedish study found that those who have a toxic boss are at greater risk of suffering a heart attack – today and 10 years out.
But, a recent study has added a new twist to this conversation. Specific styles of leadership make a difference – for better or for worse. This means that it’s not just a matter of weeding out the bad eggs, leaders need to be explicitly trained on different leadership styles.
If you’re a leader, the time is now to lead differently. As one manager put it: “To be honest, before Managers on the Move, I never really thought about incorporating well-being into my leadership style. Now I can’t imagine not doing so.”
It’s less about the programs and more about the way the work gets done – which is largely a matter of leadership. Therefore, every leader needs to seriously consider their leadership style, and whether or not it is one that is lifting their people up or if it is one that is having the opposite effect, pushing their people down.
Here are leadership traits that are associated with generating POSITIVE mental well-being for team members:
- Inspiring team members through vision.
- Encouraging team members to engage in creative thinking.
- Considering the needs of each team member.
- Showing respectful and supportive behaviors toward team members.
- Building trust within the team; and
- Clearly defining goals and work tasks.
Here are leadership traits that are associated with generating NEGATIVE mental well-being for team members:
- Neglecting team members.
- Being absent.
- Exhibiting aggressive behaviors.
- Mocking or teasing in a way that stings.
- Telling offensive jokes.
- Texting during meetings; and
- Making people feel small
To generate positive returns, the future of work calls for a new kind of leader, one who is a coach, a teacher and a friend.
Michael Gervais, former sports psychologist with the Seattle Seahawks, opened every conversation with the question: “What’s possible?” Then, he worked with each player to apply mindfulness as a tool in moving them closer to their vision. In other words, he acted as a coach who inspired and then supported.
Charlie Patillo, VP at Shaw Corporation, exemplifies Leader as Coach. He inspires and then he follows up by equipping team members with a tool, which is a weekly touchpoint. Every Friday, he sets aside 90 minutes for one-on-one time with every team member. During this weekly meeting, he poses two simple questions: “What are you working on? How can I help?” This simple ritual has opened communication and built trust within his team. Moreover, it has created a ripple effect. Now, his team members are having more regular and open dialogue with their team members. Patillo estimates that these kinds of conversations have doubled across these multiple teams, beginning only a couple of months ago when he first initiated these scheduled conversations.
After another one of my talks, a senior manager approached me and shared, “You know what a great manager is? A great manager is a teacher.” Just like a great teacher, the new kind of leader brings the right mix of challenge and support. They provide ongoing mentorship, both formally and informally, helping less experienced colleagues to shape their careers. Leader as Teacher also provides opportunities for learning and growth, something that Next Jump, a technology company headquartered in New York, NY, fully embraces. Here, leaders encourage their team members to spend 50% of their work time engaged in personal and professional development.
Finally, the new kind of leader is one who is a friend. They ask questions and listen. They apply the Golden Rule, treating others the way they want to be treated. They understand that getting ahead and accelerating performance happens by being a nice guy, not a jerk. And, they foster friendships within the team, leveraging Gallup research showing that those who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be highly engaged in their work.
Leader as Friend is also one that keeps an open door in inviting conversation about emotions, something that a growing number of employees are craving, especially younger workers. A recent Monster Intelligence survey found that a whopping 91% of Gen Z workers want to be able to talk about their mental health with their boss.
Leader as Friend is transparent about their own mental health and their own well-being. Take Dan Conrad, President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Dakota, who recently shared in a company-wide “Message from Dan”:
As we transition into the back half of winter, I encourage you to take care of yourself. This is the time of year when I struggle as I get anxious for spring, which seems to take forever to arrive some years! This year we’ve been blessed with a lot of sunny days, which has been really helpful, but it’s been too windy and cold for me and Murphy to hit the trail regularly. I’m committed to getting out there more in the coming weeks as the weather warms a bit. I hope you too can find ways to keep yourself in a positive mindset as we make the final push to spring!
The new kind of leader, who is the right combination of coach, teacher and friend, goes about doing the same things, differently. They adopt small adjustments in how the work gets done. This includes simple practices like:
- Making eye contact.
- Saying hello in the hallway or in the field.
- Asking thoughtful questions and then listening.
- Saying thank you.
- Acknowledging others and sharing credit.
If you are a leader, how are you leading differently in this new era of work?
Laura Putnam is a leading voice for well-being at work, an international public speaker and author of Workplace Wellness That Works. As CEO of Motion Infusion and creator of the leadership training program Managers on the Move, she infuses well-being and vitality into the workplace to help employees, teams and organizations thrive.
Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.