To Prevent Burnout, Hire Better Bosses

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
October 25, 2019

Workplace stress costs the U.S. economy around $300 billion per year in absenteeism, diminished productivity, and legal and medical fees.

Study after study shows that stress and burnout are major drivers of staff turnoverinjuries and substance abuse. It’s a problem even at the most desirable places to work, and it’s generally the consequence of one thing: bad leadership.

Leaders are more likely to cause stress than to reduce it. This is particularly true when managers practice abusive behaviors, but at times it’s their sheer incompetence that demoralizes their teams. Lacking technical expertise, having no clue how to give or receive feedback, and failing to understand potential are just some of the common signs of incompetence.

If organizations want to improve their employees’ work experience, they should start by improving their leadership. To that end, here are four critical lessons to consider:

THERE’S NO BETTER CURE THAN PREVENTION: Studies show that leaders’ performance — including their tendency to stress out employees — can often be predicted using science-based assessments and data. There is no excuse for hiring leaders who consistently terrorize or alienate their teams. When scrutinizing candidates for leadership roles, organizations should focus less on their past performance and more on their actual potential. Do they have the right expertise? Are they curious, smart and fast learners? Above all, do they have empathy and integrity?

IT’S MORE PROFITABLE TO REMOVE TOXIC LEADERS THAN TO HIRE SUPERSTARS: As a 2015 study shows, it’s about twice as profitable for organizations to eliminate toxic leaders than to hire top-performing ones. When bad behavior comes from the very top, it can pollute the company culture like a virus. Organizations can avoid this common trap by focusing not only on leaders’ “strengths,” but also on their potential flaws. What are their extreme tendencies? Do they display any dark-side traits?

RESILIENCE CAN HIDE THE EFFECTS OF BAD LEADERSHIP: Resilience enables employees to put up with bad managers. In a similar vein, incompetent leaders can hide their incompetence by hiring resilient employees with high levels of emotional intelligence, as they will show up as “engaged” in employee engagement surveys even when they are poorly managed or unfairly treated. If you mostly recruit people who are happy and cheerful by disposition as opposed to analytical and honest, it will be harder for you to detect problems with your leadership.

BORING IS OFTEN BETTER: Uncertainty is one of the most common drivers of stress. This is why boring managers will be far less likely to stress out their teams and subordinates than managers who are flamboyant, eccentric or charismatic — especially if they are explosive and unpredictable. Instead of relying on short-term interactions, such as the job interview, when gauging leadership potential, companies should look into each candidate’s track record and references to learn more about their leadership style and character.

To provide a stress-free work environment, companies need to hire competent leaders. Finding the right person may take more time, but the payoff will be worth the investment — for employees and for the organization at large.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Leadership

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