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Julian Barling is a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University.
Julian Barling is a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University.

Leadership advice

Barling: Good leaders mentor, not monitor Add to ...

Is this a bigger problem as we become busier, and feel more harried? We’re not in the moment – the conversation we’re having – because so much else beckons?

Absolutely. Evidence shows that as our spans of control as leaders get larger –overseeing more people – as the pressures gets greater, as our own uncertainties and fear increase, we move towards a control-oriented style, rather than a style that builds people, builds on their strengths. We have less time to engage in mentoring, so when we find time we just monitor – monitor for mistakes. Leaders revert to more of a control orientation under these pressures.

How does this play out in your research on stress?

In organizations today, there are more and more people working longer hours and working quicker but wishing they were working less. At the same time, we also have more and more people working fewer hours who wish they were working more hours. The common characteristic is that these individuals are not satisfied with their working conditions and feel they are losing control.

There’s much more uncertainty in the workplace these days, and more job insecurity. There’s a feeling of powerlessness – what we used to be able to control, if we were high performers, may be beyond our control today. We may perform very well but the organization simply can’t afford to keep us.

When people feel they are losing control, they are less productive and less healthy. Interestingly, the research shows individuals are not looking for extreme amounts of control. They are just looking for a sense that they can have some control over their own personal work. And when organizations give that control back, productivity and health goes up.

What does this specifically involve? Control over the time in which they do their work, or the manner, or the output?

It can be virtually anything. What the research indicates is that people respond best to the ability to decide how to do their own work. It’s not necessarily what work to do. Employees still expect to be told what work the organization needs them to do. But they want to have some input into how that work takes place, which they should if they were well-selected and trained. There’s more than sufficient research showing that when individuals have that relatively minimal level of input, the positive effects are disproportionate – quite profound in terms of productivity and in terms of health.

So managers are trying to do too much – they have to let go?

That’s an excellent way to put it. To have a meaningful impact on work, managers should not be there all the time, but when managers are there they should be positive and focus on mentoring. The old statement that optimism is infectious is certainly borne out by research in the workplace. Managers have to ensure they act in a positive way, are optimistic, and focus on their staff’s strengths. If they do, the likelihood is that the outcomes will be positive.

So this fits with the theories of positive psychology and the strengths-based approach?

Yes, definitely. We should be cautious with positive psychology – we need more research about its impact in organizations – but at this stage it’s sufficient to know people generally respond very well to a positive approach.

My caution comes because of some research I have become aware of in the United States, not even in an organizational realm, on forgiveness, which is one of the core positive traits. Yet this showed for situations of abuse in relationships that in some situations individuals who forgive their partner make it more likely the abuse will restart quicker than in cases where people withheld forgiveness, ensuring, if I can put it this way, partners were not let off the hook too easily. This suggests some of these attributes of positive psychology are more nuanced than we thought before, but generally a positive approach will be successful.

You have carried out research on bullying. How big is this issue? What do people need to do about it, both leaders and those being bullied?

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