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Leadership, Emotion and Purpose

May 26th, 2016



By Chris Burton

If you want your people to perform at their very best, collaborate effectively, pull together but still show initiative and stick with it no matter how hard it gets, it all comes down to three simple factors:

  1. Having trust in those around them;
  2. How they feel about the job they do; having a strong sense of pride and purpose;
  3. How they feel about the people they work with.

Everything we experience, whether at work or in our personal life, gives rise to emotions which we then interpret (make sense of) and give meaning to. The interpretations we make are based on a number of considerations; our own beliefs, values and attitudes as well as the organisational context. It appears that for the vast majority of us the three factors listed above give rise to the strongest emotions and perceptions and that’s why they play such an important part in keeping us motivated and performing at our best. There’s plenty of other contemporary research which explains why this should be the case.

We all have a basic human need to trust. And when trust exists great things can happen. In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey demonstrates that in organisations with high levels of trust, things can happen up to 60% faster than in low trust organisations. This trust “dividend” means that in business, when trust increases speed also increases and costs fall. Conversely, lower levels of trust incur a “tax” of decreased speed and increased costs.

There is an extensive body of research demonstrating the link between how people feel about the work they do and their respective levels of motivation. If we feel that our work has value and purpose and we are making an effective personal contribution, this has a huge impact on levels of self and team motivation.

It’s the Relationships, Stupid
But enjoying our work and having a sense of pride in what we achieve isn’t enough to deliver the very highest levels of motivation and engagement; there’s an old adage that we join a company for the job and leave for the people. Relationships then are the glue that binds us together and see us through the toughest of challenges; in the face of adversity, ambiguity and uncertainty it’s the strength of our relationships and the breadth of our personal network that keeps us steady.

Studies have found that the more socially connected people are, the better they tend to perform. But very few organisations actually do very much to proactively encourage stronger relationships at work – which brings us neatly back to the role of leaders.

When things are easy and life is comfortable it’s easy to ignore weak leadership; mediocrity can be tolerated because the impact weak leaders have on those around them is less obvious. I’ve witnessed this myself in organisations of all shapes and sizes when (perhaps because of strong market conditions) things are going well; leaders being largely ignored by the people they’re supposed to lead, and even worse the leaders know they’re being ignored and don’t really care. Everyone just keeps their heads down, quietly gets on with things and ignores the problem. But the
problem comes rushing to the surface the moment there’s a crisis.

When things are tough, strong leadership is required. The actions and behaviour of leaders is seen through a magnifying glass which highlights every small imperfection and their impact on those around them becomes immediately apparent.

Regardless of organisational intent, it is the leaders, who either create an environment where people can build strong relationships based on trust and take pride in what they do, or who will constrain potential and performance through their own actions and behaviour. In his book ‘The New Leaders’, Daniel Goleman describes “resonant” leaders as being attuned to people’s feelings, able to channel their own positive energy into the rest of their team. Most of us are extremely receptive to the emotions of others; this is because our brain’s emotional system is an open loop, designed specifically to pick up, and reflect, the emotions of those around us.

In the workplace we constantly watch our leaders and managers for emotional cues and we reflect these emotions and copy their behaviour often at a subconscious level. Leaders who recognise this and create positive resonance achieve high levels of motivation, performance and engagement. Daniel Goleman calls these leaders “High Impact Leaders”.

High Impact Leaders are highly self-aware and recognise the impact their actions and interactions have on others. This knowledge enables them to inspire trust and build strong relationships, ensuring that the people they work with understand the value and purpose of their work, instilling a sense of pride in what they do. This more than anything achieves engagement and creates a positive environment where people want to achieve their best, and are able to do so.

What this means is that a ‘great place to work’ isn’t about the building you go to each day for work, the office you sit in or the benefits you receive; it’s simply loving what you do and who you do it with. And that’s something that with the right leadership, everyone can enjoy.


Chris Burton ThumbnailChris Burton is a leading consultant in the field of organisational behaviour and leadership development and leads the Work Life Motivation programme at t-three consulting. This excerpt is adapted from his research into the factors which most influence motivation and engagement when things get really tough, which interviews and surveys conducted with soldiers returning from active service in Afghanistan.


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