Imagine for a moment that we gave each member of your team a leadership stress test. The specialized test would track the brain’s electrical activity and measure the positive or negative impact your leadership has on life and work. How would your leadership test out? Do you bring out the best in your team?
Of course, a test like this doesn’t exist, but research seems to indicate that too few leaders are aware of the real impact that they have on their team. Many of us are overconfident in our leadership skills, creating a gap between our perceived and actual levels of leadership competence. That’s why we’re taking a week to review key behavioral patterns within leaders that have toxic effects on organizations. On Monday, we covered two behavioral patterns; this morning, we’ll tackle two more.
“I wish my boss was a little more volatile and explosive,” said no one ever. A volatile leader is like a Jerry Springer episode—uncomfortable to watch from a distance, downright painful when the story is our reality. Life is filled with ups and downs, so it’s common for people to have shifts in emotions, but there’s a difference between experiencing a broad spectrum of emotions and reacting to every event in an extreme way. Leaders who demonstrate rapid changes in mood, impulsive and inconsistent behaviors and difficulty managing emotions create a challenging environment for a healthy team to be cultivated.
To address emotional volatility, leaders should consider adding practices that cultivate self-awareness, social-awareness, and self-regulation. Working with a mentor or coach, and when appropriate, a counselor can impact all three of these areas. Other disciplines that could be beneficial are the regular practice of mindfulness, frequent exercise, better sleep quality, and internalizing feedback from others.
Using Negative Language
We often focus on nonverbal communication as a signal for conveying emotions, but the words we say also express how we feel and think. As the growing field of algorithmic text mining and natural language processing shows, there is a systematic and robust connection between the type and frequency of words we choose to express ourselves and our moods and temperaments. Even when we think we’re dispassionately discussing our business strategy, the words we choose will convey our emotional and mental state to others. In particular, leaders can expect the emotional impact of their words to be even more substantial when those words are written. People tend to reread important messages, internalizing their affective content.
Research has shown that to avoid accidentally triggering anxiety through language, best practice is to refrain from using negative words (e.g., horrific, shocking, and dangerous) and their euphemisms (e.g., challenging, problematic, and undesirable). The only criterion for determining whether a word is negative is whether it increases the listener’s negative effect—in other words, it might elevate anxiety, worry, and concern. Even if two leaders are in the same situation and describing the same state of affairs, they will have a different impact on the public if they talk about “hope,” “improvements,” or “light at the end of the tunnel” as opposed to “death toll,” “mortality rate,” or “depression.”
Final Thought: Leaders are super-spreaders of emotion. What contagion are we spreading?