At a recent cocktail party, I was asked by several entrepreneurs whether or not they should put a foosball table, game system, ping pong table, or even keg-a-rator in their workspace. My response was, “Why?” Many of them couldn’t muster an answer. Games and kegs seem to be en vogue as signals of the modern, informal, vibe-y, people-centric work environment – but they’re merely superficial trappings. Who cares if our office has a foosball table if we cannot look each other in the eye and resolve our conflicts? Who cares if I can pour myself an IPA whenever I want if my manager takes credit for my work? Culture represents a collective understanding of shared values. Culture is found in beliefs, decisions, and actions. Culture is what is expressed – and culture is built inside-out, not outside-in. Building and sustaining work culture is, first and foremost, the responsibility of leaders – and building and sustaining a prosocial culture hinges on the presence of prosocial leaders.
Another question worth asking and answering is: Why should organizational leaders be attentive to culture in the first place? The answer is because positive work culture is associated with a great many desirable outcomes – outcomes that benefit the organization and employees. It isn’t exactly revelatory to posit a relationship between positive leadership (and culture) and desirable employee and organizational outcomes. Today’s dominant organizational milieu prioritizes employee’s emotional, social, and psychological needs alongside organizational efficiency, performance, and success. Gallup’s meta-analysis of employee engagement – which stretches over a decade – indicates that employee engagement is associated with such desirable outcomes as enhanced quantity and quality of work as well as increased organizational profitability.1
So how do we create and sustain a positive organizational culture that attracts, retains, inspires, and supports talented and driven people to do great work? Multiple approaches are used – some easy and largely ineffective and others challenging but potentially impactful. The answer is certainly not to merely buy a foosball table. Ultimately, positive organizational culture is built and sustained by leaders guided by people-centric values and buoyed by effective leadership skills – what I call prosocial leadership.
Prosocial leadership is a set of values, beliefs, skills, and habits that facilitate achievement of organizational objectives primarily by attending to the well-being and functioning of organizational members. Prosocial leadership is a set of intra- and inter-personal processes that allow leaders to dignify work, engage people, and inspire excellence.
I’ve spent the past several years compiling information from my engagements as a leadership development consultant and from pouring over an array of psychological literatures – including those on judgment and decision-making, self-regulation, executive derailment, perceived organizational justice, positive interpersonal leadership (e.g., servant leadership, authentic leadership, transformational leadership, leader-member exchange), emotional and social intelligence, work motivation, persuasion and influence, structural and tactical models of communication, conflict management, risk-taking, grit, courage, happiness and psychological well-being, goal-setting, behavioral change models, and self-awareness – in an effort to organize and simplify the myriad of processes at play within leadership, followership, and team dynamics. This review and integration effort has resulted in the Prosocial Model of Leadership – built upon a foundation established by the late Chris Peterson and the positive psychology guru Martin Seligman.
The Back Story of the Prosocial Leadership Model
In psychology, we have a book – the DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.2 The DSM is the primary resource used by clinical psychologists, counselors, and therapists for diagnosing mental and personality disorders. It is a very thorough and rigorously designed classification system and diagnostic tool (though not without its flaws). Disorders are, essentially, chronic disruptors. When a personality or mental disorder goes untreated, it is apt to interfere with a person’s capacity to build and sustain relationships, to pursue and achieve their goals, and to experience happiness and fulfillment.
About 15 years ago, University of Michigan psychologist, Chris Peterson, and world-renown University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin Seligman were interested in exploring the other side of the coin: What are the skills, habits, and characteristics associated with human flourishing? Put another way, what is it that contributes to rather than disrupts relationships, success, and happiness? They went in search of a universal set of human virtues and character strengths. When they began their search, they were told by colleagues that no such universals existed – each culture and society is undergirded by different values and therefore promotes different sets of virtues. Peterson and Seligman were not so easily dissuaded. They sought the insight and expertise of a wide range of experts – including sociologists, economists, and philosophers. They studied the great civilizations of human history, looking for commonalities that allowed people to cooperate (built and sustained relationships) in ways that grew and advanced their societies (pursued and achieved success) thus expanding opportunities and flourishing (a sense of fulfillment and happiness).
They found significant differences across cultures and throughout the civilizations of human history, to be sure. However, they also found significant similarities. While often expressed differently across cultures, core human virtues are essentially universal – what Peterson and Seligman referred to as coherent resemblance. At the most abstract and broadest level, Peterson and Seligman identified six virtues – temperance, wisdom, justice, humanity, transcendence, and courage – which they termed The High Six (a wordplay referring to the Big Five taxonomy of personality).
Several years ago, I read Peterson and Seligman’s 700+ page book.3 I was immediately struck by the intuitive appeal of The High Six as qualities and capabilities worthy of admiration – and the claim that the virtues are related to human flourishing seemed self-evident.
But I was struck by an additional epiphany: The High Six are pillars of positive leadership as well. What is leadership, after all? What is it that great leaders do? They build and sustain positive and effective relationships; they position others to contribute to and attain success; and when they really get it right, they contribute to team members’ sense of fulfillment and happiness. Relationships, success, and happiness – leadership is merely a subset of the broader human experience – and The High Six are exceptionally powerful as organizing principles for the practice of leadership. What makes for an effective leader isn’t all that different than what makes for an effective human being.
The Prosocial Model of Leadership
The Prosocial Model of Leadership uses The High Six as a scaffolding for integrating the rich psychological literatures of personal and interpersonal dynamics in the workplace by describing six broad dimensions of leadership. This scaffolding includes Peterson and Seligman’s virtue labels and definitions, the psychological and neurological evidence that links expressions of the virtues to relationships, success, and happiness, and non-exhaustive sets of leadership expressions of the virtue (i.e., examples and suggestions of prosocial leadership behavior and competencies).
In an effort to keep the present paper relatively succinct, the psychological and neurological links as well as behavioral leadership expressions are only briefly described.
What follows, are the High Six virtues, more psychologically-oriented prosocial leadership analogs, dimension-specific threats (i.e., something that interferes with people’s expressions of prosocial leadership), and a few behavioral suggestions for how to express each prosocial dimension effectively.
Be at Your Best When People Need You the Most
Dimension #1: Discipline & Self-Control (Temperance)
Temperance is defined as the moderation of one’s tendencies to the benefit of oneself and others. It’s an old-fashioned word that might evoke images of a certain 19th Century movement – but from a psychological perspective, it refers to self-regulatory practices that manifest as delay of gratification, personal discipline, forgiveness, impulse control, and effective management of one’s stress-induced reactions.
The Threat: Derailing Reactions to Stress
Managing one’s stress reactions may be the most critical aspect of this dimension of leadership. Under conditions of perceived threat, the adrenal gland releases cortisol – the hormone that serves as the body’s alarm system and which triggers fight and flight reactions. Glucose floods into our muscle cells, we become hyper-aware of our surroundings, and we prepare to fight or to flee. While these reactions were exceptionally useful 50,000 years ago and are still critical for survival in certain instances today, they are often dysfunctional and even toxic in modern organizational contexts. Hiding in one’s office and avoiding emails and phone calls are not effective displays of leadership, do not help to build or sustain relationships, and are not conducive to good decision-making. Similarly, running out of one’s office and yelling and screaming at people is also not an effective display of leadership, does not help to build or sustain healthy relationships, and is not conducive to effective decision-making.
Several years ago, a colleague and I gathered data on over 250 organizational leaders to understand their potential for stress-induced derailment. We found that nearly 95% of the leaders had a fight or flight reaction that was at least a distraction to them and the people around them and that nearly 65% of the leaders had a fight or flight reaction that was severe enough to potentially derail their career or key organizational relationships. A previous study found that the number one cause of executive derailment to be an inability to effectively manage relationships under conditions of pressure or anxiety.4
Most people are not aware of their stress reactions – as such reactions are essentially unconscious stress-coping mechanisms that help us to feel better and safer in the near-term (even though they are often terribly costly in the long-term).
The Prosocial Reaction: Maintaining Poise under Pressure
Prosocial leaders avoid succumbing to impulsive fight and flight reactions, even when under significant pressure. They demonstrate an even-keeled composure that allows them to be at their best when others need them the most. Their poise and consistency also serve to steady and balance the people around them.
Below are four strategies prosocial leaders utilize to manage their stress reactions…
First, manage baseline stress. We each have our own threshold for stress and perceived threat. Some people are nearly unflappable and others are easily flustered – most of us are somewhere in between. We also experience different levels of stress and anxiety based upon individual differences and circumstances. Some people are naturally very relaxed (think, the Dude from the Big Lebowski) whereas others are innately high-strung and anxious (think, Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Felt stress also varies across time. How stressed you feel today is apt to be different than what you felt six months ago and what you will feel two years from now. The goal is to keep actual stress levels as far from one’s threshold as possible.
Lowering baseline stress allows us to endure more work-related stress before we’re triggered into fight and flight reactions. There are, essentially, two strategies for reducing baseline stress. First, curative care removes the root causes of stress (e.g., exiting an unhealthy relationship). Curative measures have enduring effects but are often difficult to implement. Second, palliative care involves an on-going stress reduction process (e.g., sufficient sleep, proper diet, exercise, decompression time, work-life balance). Palliative measures are easier to implement, but must be utilized in an ongoing manner or their benefits are lost.
A second strategy is to reframe threats as challenges. We tend to interpret stressful events in one of two ways: as hindrance stressors or as challenge stressors.5 Hindrance stressors are typically viewed as outside our control and as having virtually no redeeming qualities – they simply make life miserable. Challenge stressors, on the other hand, are typically viewed as an opportunity to overcome an obstacle, to grow personally, and to achieve something meaningful. It is not unusual for us to frame as hindrance stressors events or situations that can be more optimally framed as challenge stressors. For example, I recently worked with an executive who framed her boss as a hindrance stressor. They had a very poor relationship and the boss suffered from a startling lack of social intelligence. My coachee (the executive) was exceptionally frustrated and felt as though there was nothing she could do. She felt trapped by her status and compensation within the organization (i.e., quitting her job would incur significant financial and career costs) and by the relationship (i.e., he made her work-life miserable).
I encouraged her to reframe the relationship as a challenge stressor. What a great opportunity to develop her skills for managing a difficult relationship! While she couldn’t control her boss, she could seek to navigate the relationship more effectively, make her needs and concerns more transparent, and develop communication tactics that minimized the unpleasant and unproductive aspects of their relationship while maximizing the desirable aspects. The relationship was not destined to ever be exceptional, but it could be manageable.
This reframing allowed her to focus on aspects of the situation over which she might exercise positive influence. By reframing the situation as a challenge to be overcome rather than an unending and inevitable obstacle, she was able to improve the relationship significantly. Framing setbacks as challenges, failures as learning opportunities, and obstacles as opportunities to accomplish something meaningful can and do reduce felt stress, thereby reducing the likelihood of derailing fight and flight reactions. A third strategy is to short-circuit stress reactions. Our physiological reactions to stress and threat precede our behavioral reactions. The body’s physiological preparations for fight and flight can serve as an early warning system. What happens to you when you feel threatened or anxious? Perhaps your heart rate increases, you begin to sweat, your face becomes flush, and/or your breathing rate increases. All of these reactions signal what’s coming next – some kind of fight or flight reaction. While it is difficult to heed the body’s early warning system in moments of stress (remember, these reactions are largely unconscious), developing mindfulness practices can give us a brief window of time in which we can make conscious and deliberate decisions to not fight or to not flee.
Additionally, we can empower people around us to supportively “call out” our fight and flight reactions. A team member who knocks on the office door and implores us to come speak to the team when we retreat and make ourselves inaccessible or the colleague who kicks us under the table when we are becoming overly assertive in a team meeting can help us short-circuit our stress reactions before they really get going.
A fourth strategy is to develop a substitute set of behaviors. It isn’t enough to know what we won’t do under pressure – we must develop an effective set of habits to call forth in critical moments. While substitute behaviors cannot be overly prescriptive (because each situation is different), it is helpful to develop heuristics – guidelines to keep oneself on track and away from the derailing tendencies.
My prominent stress reaction is to become argumentative and overly assertive. I have a hand-written note in my office (prominently displayed) as a reminder of my substitute behaviors. The note reads: 1. Keep your mouth shut, 2. Speak last, 3. Start with questions.
My substitute behaviors are a reminder to literally keep my mouth shut (when my mouth is open, I’m just waiting for the other person to stop talking so I can interject), to listen, and to seek to understand other people’s perspectives and ideas before expressing my own.
Stress-induced derailment is insidious – creating bad habits that slowly erode our judgment and relationships. The strategies described above can help you stay grounded, thoughtful, and effective when people around you need you most.
When It Matters Most, Don’t Go It Alone
Dimension #2: Insight & Decision-Making (Wisdom)
Wisdom is the accumulation and application of knowledge for the good of others. It is “…noble intelligence – in the presence of which no one is resentful and everyone appreciative.”6 From a psychological perspective, wisdom refers to cognitive processes that manifest as intellectual humility and curiosity, critical and strategic thinking, flexible decision-making, openness to a diversity of viewpoints, and collaborative problem-solving. The result of leadership wisdom is insight and effective decision-making.
The Threat: Our Irrational Nature
The world is incomprehensibly complex. Attending to every detail and every component is an impossibility. In order to effectively navigate our complex environments, we necessarily utilize what cognitive psychologists call intuitive, or System One, thinking.7 System One thinking is an effortless and flowing form of thinking that is based upon impressions, associations, and feelings. It is based upon immediate recognitions and allows us to create a narrative and to “fill in the blanks” when necessary. Have you ever driven a familiar route (perhaps from work to home) and found yourself daydreaming or thinking about something else? You may have navigated traffic lights, lane changes, turns, and other vehicles and pedestrians without much thought or focus. You end up at home safely having expended very little cognitive energy or focus on actually driving there. Your brain was, it seemed, on autopilot with regard to driving. This is System One thinking. We are able to perform routine and familiar functions without consciously or deliberately thinking about them.
System One thinking is essential to our survival and our sanity. As mentioned above, the world is incomprehensibly complex. In order to have any chance of navigating it successfully, we must conserve our cognitive energy for critical, complex, and high stakes situations. The rest, we generally relegate to the System One process. When situations require greater depth of thought, we often engage the reflective, or System Two, thinking process. System Two thinking is deliberate and effortful. It draws far more upon our cognitive resources. It’s time consuming and less efficient than System One thinking – but also much more powerful. When driving in a crowded and unfamiliar metropolitan area, you’re apt to engage in System Two thinking. You are paying far more attention to the other vehicles, the street signs, and the possibility a lane may end or the construction up ahead may require a detour.
System Two thinking results in fewer mistakes because it is more cautious and skeptical – it relies upon fewer assumptions and associations and allows us to dig into the specifics of a situation. However, we simply cannot engage in System Two thinking all the time – it is far too taxing and completely unnecessary for many of our activities.
The greatest threat to effective decision-making for leaders is an over-reliance on System One thinking due to being overly cognitively taxed. System One thinking relies upon heuristics (rule-based reasoning) and is highly susceptible to a slew of cognitive biases (e.g., groupthink, salience bias, and availability bias8) and attributional errors (e.g., fundamental attribution error, actor-observer effect, and false consensus effect9). Perhaps one of the most pervasive and problematic biases is the confirmation bias – the tendency to notice and to interpret information that confirms our currently held beliefs and conclusions. We tend to seek and to find the information that allows us to draw the conclusions we want to draw. We interpret ambiguous information as supportive of our views and beliefs. For example, liberal people tend to watch CNBC, hear commentary consistent with their beliefs, and become further entrenched in their views. Conservative people tend to watch Fox News, hear commentary consistent with their beliefs, and become further entrenched in their views.
Interestingly, confirmation bias has been shown to be twice as powerful when information is presented sequentially rather than simultaneously. In other words, when information is compared against a previously reached conclusion, we tend to dig our heels in and remain committed to the initial conclusion. However, when evidence supporting alternative conclusions is presented simultaneously, we tend to compare the evidence (and the conclusions they support) against one another rather than against our initially held conclusion.10
Leaders often surround themselves with people who think as they think and are inclined to (tacitly) reward people for expressing ideas that fit their desired conclusions. The confirmation bias is incredibly powerful, is most likely to occur when we’re engaged in System One thinking, and happens without our awareness. Our inability to confront divergent or even disconfirming information can lead to catastrophic decisions that seem obvious upon reflection but were virtually impossible to predict while in the midst of a bout of confirmation bias.
The Prosocial Reaction: Avoiding Cognitive Pitfalls
Prosocial leaders recognize their susceptibility to cognitive mistakes and errors and design decision-making processes and dynamics that enhance the judgment and problem-solving processes. Below are some suggested practices for avoiding the pitfalls of cognitive bias and erroneous thinking.
First, surround yourself with divergent and independent thinkers. You can’t consider alternative interpretations, conclusions, or solutions if you aren’t exposed to them. Embrace diversity of thought, expertise, knowledge, and even priorities as a team strength to be leveraged. While managing such a group will require greater facilitative skills, the benefit is well worth the investment.
Second, establish a decision-making process that pushes you and your team into System Two thinking. Require situational assumptions to be probed. Have team members play Devil’s Advocate for all serious ideas or solutions that are brought forth. Require the exposition of alternatives. Do not settle for the first solution – even if it seems obvious and correct.
Third, reward divergent thinking. It isn’t enough to establish a good problem-solving process – use of the process must be encouraged, supported, and reinforced. Team members must know that taking the risk to offer a divergent perspective won’t be punished (e.g., scoffed at or harshly criticized) but rather appreciated and welcomed.
Fourth, embrace equifinality. Avoid the trap of thinking there is a “right” answer. Such thinking causes us to end our search prematurely. Instead, operate with the assumption that there are likely multiple potential paths to the desired outcome – and your task is to reveal as many of these paths as possible and select the one that fits your circumstances.
Fifth, behave as a skeptic. Approach each potential solution or conclusion as imperfect. Seek to find the flaws and weaknesses in the alternatives you and your team have identified. Then, simply select the strongest available option from your set of imperfect but plausible choices.
To Be Fair, Discriminate
Dimension #3: Fairness & Justice (Justice)
Justice is the fair treatment of others. That seems simple enough, right? But simple doesn’t mean easy. There are multiple justice ethics, including equity, equality, and need. As a leader, which ethic is to be applied? Are you operating with the same ethic of justice as your team members? What are the consequences of people feeling they are treated fairly or unfairly within an organization? Are you and team members relying upon the same pieces of information to form your conclusions about fairness? People’s reactions to perceived unfairness can be quite powerful, making the concept of justice a critical one for leaders to consider.
The Threat: The Messy World of Organizational (In)Justice
Imagine an employee’s spouse is dying of cancer. You decide to allow the employee to exceed the organizationally-determined paid time off. Are you giving the time off to all your employees? No. So you are not applying the ethic of equality. Did the employee earn the time off? No. So you are not applying the ethic of equity either. You’re applying the ethic of need. Your action represents an act of compassion that most people would likely consider fair and the right thing to do.
Imagine you have an exceptionally skilled salesperson – he has an impressive network of clients and generates greater sales revenue than the next two most successful salespeople combined. His performance is critical to your organization’s success and viability. However, he consistently misbehaves. He disregards company policies, operates outside the rules, and speaks disrespectfully (even abusively) to his coworkers. You look the other way because he is so productive but this special treatment does not go unnoticed by your other team members and morale is dropping precipitously. You are violating the ethic of equality by relaxing the standards of conduct for this “star” performer.
The scenarios above are intended to illustrate the importance of all three ethics of justice. Nonetheless, the most pervasive ethic – the one that is most strongly related to and predictive of employee motivation and engagement – is the ethic of equity. The traditional psychological definition of equity refers to a distribution of outcomes (rewards and accountabilities) commensurate with people’s behavior and performance. In other words, equity is people getting what they deserve and what they have earned.
More than half a century ago, psychologist J. Stacy Adams delineated an equity theory of motivation that described people as engaging in a social comparison process by which they make determinations of fairness based upon the relative inputs and outputs of themselves and some “other.”10 Fair treatment is perceived when one’s ratio of outputs (the value one creates for the organization) to inputs (the value one derives from the organization) is equal to the ratio of a comparison other or others. In the simplest terms possible, if you produce twice as much as I do and you earn twice as much money, I will not perceive inequity. The obvious implication of this equity theory prediction is to reward people fairly for their contributions – and create both internal (with coworkers) and external (with the broader labor market) equity.
However, perceptions of equity quickly become messy. Who is the “other” to whom an employee is comparing himself? Is the comparison an appropriate one? How are inputs defined? Quality of work? Quantity of work? Loyalty? Effort? Hours worked? Subject matter expertise? Organizational citizenship? Educational background?
How are outputs defined? Salary? Total compensation? Benefits? Choice work assignments? Public recognition? Autonomy? Access to superiors? Professional development? Flex schedule or opportunity to work remotely?
It is quite possible and even likely that leaders and employees are utilizing different comparison “others” as well as different currencies of inputs and outputs in making determinations of fairness. Perhaps you are constantly providing a team member with public praise and recognition but what she really wants and values is stretch assignments that will provide her visibility with senior leadership and will allow her to further develop her skills and experience. You may believe you are creating an equitable ratio (because public recognition is so value, right?) whereas the employee believes she is being short-changed relative to peers.
The reactions to perceived inequity – specifically when an employee believes he is being short-changed – are varied but often not desirable. An employee may request more outputs (e.g., a raise or more stretch assignments), may reduce inputs (i.e., give less effort, work fewer hours, produce less), choose to exit the system (i.e., seek a more equitable arrangement across the street with your competitor), or even simply take outputs (e.g., steal office supplies, pad an expense report, or embezzle money). The costs associated with perceived inequity can clearly be severe – the demotivation and disengagement of talented people, undesirable turnover, and even theft.
There are no easy solutions because the problem is so messily perceptual and subjective. Nonetheless, leaders who value fairness and justice and who are attentive to and responsive to team members’ perceptions of justice are likely to fare better than their counterparts who are oblivious or uncaring of such issues. A reasonable objective is to approximate some kind of alignment among team members regarding valued inputs and outputs, and then to appropriately discriminate (i.e., the application of an equity ethic) among people based upon their behavior and performance.
The Prosocial Reaction: Striving for Fairness and Justice
Prosocial leaders seek to maximize clarity around inputs valued by the leader/organization, outputs valued by the employee, and levels of performance for which people are being rewarded. What follows are suggested practices for how to improve perceptions of fairness and justice among team members.
First, be clear and explicit about desirable inputs. As an organizational leader, develop a clear and cohesive understanding of what you want and value from your team members. Then, communicate your expectations to them. Creating clarity about how you and the organization define “value” will help people direct their energy and focus to the most important issues, priorities, and expectations. If you value team members who are collaborative, then explain what that means and what your expectations are regarding collaboration. If you value and expect independence and self-reliance, explain what that means and entails.
Second, understand the outputs your people value. Avoid making the assumption that others value what you value. Perhaps they value higher pay. Perhaps they value job security. Perhaps they value flexibility in their schedule. You won’t know unless you ask and listen. It is also possible for desired outputs to change over time – so revisit the question periodically.
Third, understand who the comparison “other” is. It is not apt to be a single person – but rather multiple individuals, groups, or even an abstract/hypothetical group of others. Strive to understand the frame of reference used by a team member to make evaluations of equity. If the comparison “other” seems inappropriate, consider ways of introducing a more appropriate referent.
Fourth, be as transparent as possible. Some organizations, such as Whole Foods, have made all compensation data available within the organization in an effort to reduce distorted and erroneous comparisons. However, such transparency may not be possible in your organization. At the very least, be up front with people about the currencies over which you have a degree of control and those you do not. Strive to help your people understand why others may be receiving more praise or more desirable work assignments. Greater clarity results in less confusion – and it creates the opportunity for dialogue that enhances mutual understanding.
Fifth, provide feedback and a path. When a disadvantageous equity ratio is perceived by a team member, it is important to provide him with feedback regarding his contributions (e.g., performance) and to provide him with a path toward the desired outputs (i.e., rewards). The goal is to increase the alignment of perceptions between you and the team member and to help him have a means of achieving the outcomes he desires, such as a promotion or a raise. Feedback and coaching are tools that signal to the team member that you care about his needs and interests and will aid him in achieving the outcomes he desires.
Sixth, hold people accountable. A prosocial response to poor performance or behavior is to coach the team member to better outcomes – but sometimes people are unwilling or unable to change. Allowing undesirable behavior or performance to persist can have a toxic effect on team morale and engagement. The misbehaver who is allowed to remain in the organization and remain unchanged can create widespread perceptions of inequity. Having the courage to address such issues and protect organizational fairness is a moral responsibility of leadership.
To Be Successful, Put People First
Dimension #4: Humanity & Compassion (Humanity)
Humanity is treating others with compassion, love, and respect. Perspectives on leadership and organizational behavior are replete with concepts and examples of humanity – including social and emotional intelligence, individualized consideration, and servant leadership. From a psychological perspective, humanity refers to interpersonal processes such as listening, cooperation, collaboration, providing praise and public recognition, proactive communication, and mentorship and people development.
The Threat: A Cycle of Selfishness and Self-Protection
As previously mentioned, our instinctive reactions to stress and perceived threat are typically self-protective. In those moments, we are inclined to care more about our own safety, security, success, reputation, and credit received than about the well-being of others. In other words, the identification of threat and the release of cortisol can start a vicious and dysfunctional cycle of selfishness. The more we focus on ourselves, the more others are inclined to do the same (after all, no one else is looking after them). This cycle tips the balance of healthy cooperation-competition into a realm of excessive and unhealthy self-preservation. People are constantly looking over their shoulders. Trust erodes and people expend untold amounts of energy protecting themselves from internal threats and organizational politics.
However, studies conducted by neuroscientists indicate trust is linked to the release of oxytocin in our systems.12 Oxytocin is associated with feelings of safety, connection, and solidarity. When mothers give birth, they experience a massive release of oxytocin. It’s the love chemical. That’s not to reduce love to merely a neurological phenomenon – I certainly believe it to be far more than that. Nonetheless, there is a neurological component to feeling connected to others and to feeling safe.
The presence of oxytocin actually inhibits the release of cortisol (the fight and flight chemical).13 In other words, feeling connected, valued, protected, and appreciated by others actually reduces the likelihood of reacting to threats with self-protective and self-serving fight and flight reactions. Feeling connected, valued, and safe can actually protect us from professional derailment.
Additionally, building relationships characterized by valuing people, their capabilities, and their perspectives has other positive benefits. As previously mentioned, valuing others enough to involve them in decision-making actually enhances the quality of decisions and problem-solving efforts. One researcher has found that building trust and cultivating relationships increased employee engagement by 76%!14
Empowering people and trusting them to get the job done creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which people rise to the challenge whereas micromanagement based upon an inherent belief that others are incapable or untrustworthy produces less capable and more dependent employees – a phenomenon long recognized.15
It’s easy to become so focused on tasks and objectives that we forget about people and relationships – but it’s people and relationships that are at the heart of virtually every great success story. Valuing people and investing in relationships inoculates us against derailment, improves the quality of our decisions, and enhances team members’ engagement and motivation.
Avoiding the false choice between pursuing results and attending to people is perhaps the key to prosocial leadership. There are multiple components to trust (something addressed later in this paper) – but benevolence-based trust (i.e., caring) may be the most important. Knowing that a person cares about you – about your well-being – about your needs and interests – that kind of caring is profoundly powerful in the building of relationship and in the formation of trust.
The Prosocial Reaction: Expressing Care for Your People
Prosocial leaders frequently and consistently demonstrate care and concern for others and, in doing so, get a release of oxytocin that makes them feel really good. However, it will also get their team member a release of oxytocin – and that’ll feel good to her. Prosocial leaders serve as catalysts of the virtuous cycle of collaboration and care. If you invest in, protect, and take care of your people, it’ll feel good for you and feel good for them. Then, your team members will start investing in, protecting, and taking care of one another. You will start a virtuous cycle of trust and collaboration that is characteristic of high-performance teams.
Below are suggested practices for expressing humanity and compassion as part of one’s leadership approach…
First, practice empathy and listening. Remember the value of listening, both for you and for others. Listening helps us navigate the world around us more effectively because of a reduced tendency to jump to conclusions and greater access to important and relevant knowledge and information. When we listen, the people around us will be heard – and being heard diminishes a sense of powerlessness that paralyzes people and leads to a downward spiral of demoralization and demotivation.
Second, be responsive. Look for opportunities to help others by sharing information, creating clarity, providing guidance and advice, or even just by lending a hand when a team member is falling behind. Treat facilitating the success of others as the primary responsibility of leadership. By doing so, we invoke the norm of reciprocity – which, over time, moves relationships from transactions to social exchanges in which people are not keeping score but rather helping others they trust will help them (when needed).
Third, work collaboratively. Value the input, ideas, perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities of others and seek them out. Leaders who go it alone are leaders who end up alone – usually beset by failures and mistakes. Involving others in problem-solving and empowering team members with decision-making authority will enhance outcomes and engagement. Aligning opportunities and responsibilities with people’s capabilities and interests will mean you leverage the best of your people in ways that bring maximize benefit to you and the organization while simultaneously maximizing your people’s fulfillment and enjoyment at work.
Fourth, coach and mentor. Helping others grow their capabilities and their careers are some of the most powerful ways in which you can indicate your care and interest in your people. Helping employee’s become who they want to become and accomplish what they want to accomplish is an unselfish investment of an authentic leader. While developing people’s talents means risking losing them to promotions or better opportunities elsewhere, the goodwill, trust, and admiration gained outweighs potential downsides in the long-term.
Fifth, practice gratitude and celebrate small wins. Scanning the environment for positive news and praiseworthy events is a hallmark of prosocial leaders. Practicing gratitude cultivates optimism and happiness16 – which are powerful psychological and emotional states for both leaders and team members. Social scientists have determined that maintaining a 3:1 praise-to-critical feedback ratio is ideal for maximizing employee engagement and motivation17 – and offering up all that praise and gratitude will simultaneously enhance your mood and sense of well-being!
Put Your Stake in the Ground
Dimension #5: Vision & Purpose (Transcendence)
Transcendence is pursuit of a purpose greater than and beyond self-interest. Transcendent leaders have a calling – a sense of purpose – and the capacity to articulate a vision of the future that is compelling to others. From a psychological perspective, transcendent leaders identify a purpose and vision, articulate them effectively to others, attract people who share the leader’s values and beliefs, and contribute to the meaning people find in their work by connecting tactical activity to the greater purpose and mission. At its core, transcendent leadership is deeply inspiring – but the inspiration is not based upon personal charisma but rather the resonance created through shared values and purpose.
The Threat: Reducing the Whole to Less than the Sum of the Parts
The traditional view of the role of leaders focuses extensively on coordinating the activities of people to complete organizational tasks and achieve organizational objectives. Such a view and approach to leadership creates the risk of being overly tactical and overly “task-y.” People’s roles become nothing more than a series of tasks. If those tasks aren’t terribly interesting or intrinsically motivating, work can quickly be reduced to a mundane routine that saps people of energy and spirit.
A couple of years ago, I was camping with some friends. One friend, responsible for custodial services for a large hospital organization, was lamenting how difficult it is to motivate his team of managers, supervisors, and front-line employees. “They essentially empty waste baskets, sweep floors, and clean bathrooms,” he said. He was struggling to keep his team members engaged and focused on doing excellent work. He knew the series of tasks themselves were not particularly fun, interesting, or fulfilling, and was at a loss for how to motivate his team toward improved outcomes.
I asked a series of questions that were designed to change his thinking about the work his team did.
Jack: I’m struggling to motivate my custodial team to be excellent. They do the job but not with much pride or commitment. Sometimes it feels like they’re just going through the motions – and it’s hard to convince them that they should be excited about cleaning toilets and emptying trash cans.
Me: What does it mean to be excellent in their line of work?
Jack: Well, it means all patient spaces – well, all spaces – are cleaned thoroughly in a consistent manner. We’re sanitizing the spaces effectively.
Me: Why is sanitization so important?
Jack: Failure to maintain a sanitized environment can lead to infections – some of the patients are particularly susceptible to and vulnerable to infections.
Me: What’s the worst possible outcome of a patient infection?
Jack: Worst case scenario – a patient could die.
Me: So the work your team does has actual life and death consequences to it?
Jack: Yeah, I suppose it does.
Me: And you’re having difficulty motivating people to be engaged in their work?
Jack: Well, I guess I don’t communicate with the team in those terms. We tend to be focused on protocols and checklists.
Me: Those are important too, right?
Jack: Yes, the protocols guide them through their work.
Me: So they provide you with the “what” and the “how?”
Jack: Yes. But as we’re talking, I think I see that the protocols don’t provide the “why.”
Me: So how does that change your thinking or your approach to leading your team?
Jack: I need to spend more time talking about why our work is so important and how it makes a difference in people’s lives. I need to remind my team that the work they do is critical to patient safety, health, and well-being. I think I need to help them realize that they’re part of a larger group of people here at the hospital who are dedicated to saving lives. That might sound a bit grandiose, but that is what we’re here to do.
Me: I don’t think that sounds grandiose at all. I think it sounds true and important.
The Prosocial Reaction: Make a Moral Argument
Jack had a meaningful realization – that articulating a sense of purpose is critical to inspiring people and to dignifying work. Prosocial leaders have an authenticity, resonance, and capacity to inspire that is unique. They value mission over methods and connect with others in ways that bring forth people’s passion and potential. Below are some suggested practices that help leaders articulate a vision of the future and lead with a sense of purpose…
First, get clear about what you believe. It is easy to get so focused on tasks and objectives that we forget about mission and values. We can get so “in the weeds” of tactical work life – reacting to urgencies and tactical demands – that we fail to step back, think about how our work fits into the bigger picture, and lead deliberately and intentionally in ways that align with our purpose and values. I recommend all leaders spend time reviewing and reflecting on organizational mission and values. Determine how the organizational mission and values align with your personal mission and values. Know what you believe, what you value, and what you are there to accomplish. Write out a personal leader vision statement that can serve to guide you in your actions and decisions.
Second, communicate purpose before tasks/tactics. Simon Sinek popularized the phrase “start with why” in his widely popular TED talk18 and subsequently in his book of the same title.19 He recommends leaders develop a deep and authentic understanding of their purpose (i.e. their “why”). Once you understand your “why” and can articulate it effectively to yourself, it can then become the starting point for communication. First communicate the team’s shared purpose and then communicate the how and the what. While starting with why isn’t always appropriate (sometimes we just need to communicate the task-related information), it is powerful when striving to inspire others or motivate people to support change.
Third, derive meaning from purpose and values. Make clear and explicit the relationships between the tactical work people are doing and the broader mission or purpose. During the middle of a tour of a NASA facility, President John F. Kennedy reportedly said to a janitor, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” The man responded, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The janitor was part of an organization that had a clear sense of purpose and that, more importantly, helped each and every person feel connected to and a participant in the purpose.
Additionally, people can derive a great sense of meaning in how the work is accomplished – by the values that reflect ethical standards and expectations. I had a retail client who sold shoes. There was nothing terribly admirable about the mission – they were merely a shoe retailer. But they worked very hard at instilling and practicing their core values. They had expectations about honesty, integrity, and respect that were the cornerstone of how they worked. The employees took great pride in the culture and values – and everyone worked tremendously hard to consistently reflect the values and to promote the culture in all their interactions with one another and with customers. They sought to brighten each other’s lives a little bit by honoring and dignifying one another – and in doing so, they found a profound sense of purpose.
Fourth, make a moral argument. There is powerful evidence that moral arguments trump rational arguments. Details, facts, and figures are, sometimes, important – but much of the time, it will be the moral case that grabs someone’s attention and proves persuasive. The work of social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, indicates that the medial prefrontal cortex – which is the part of the brain responsible for both making moral judgments and rational judgments – tends to be swayed more effectively by the moral components of a situation than by the rational components.20
According to Haidt’s social intuitionist model, when confronted with moral information, we make immediate moral judgments – believing something to be good or bad, or right or wrong.21 It is only after we’ve formed our moral judgment that we go in search of information to confirm our judgment. In other words, we are not neutral and objective arbiters. We do not gather and weigh information first and then form judgments. We form judgments quickly and intuitively, and then seek the information that confirms our judgment correct.
In other words, a leader who makes an authentic moral claim is apt to have people nodding their heads and saying, “That’s right” or “That’s good” before they’ve really had a chance to think things through. At this point, people are looking for reasons to confirm these initial judgments. They will be open to the “how” and “what” information the leader provides next.
Former President of the American Enterprise Institute and current Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Arthur Brooks, provides an interesting example of using moral argumentation to influence others to embrace free enterprise, effectively presented here.22
When my friend Jack speaks to his team members about saving lives, he’s making a moral argument that causes team members to nod their heads and to be receptive to his directions about how they can contribute to saving lives.
Say What You Mean, and Do What You Say
Dimension #6: Courage & Integrity (Courage)
Courage is a willingness to risk discomfort or even harm to oneself in order to do what is right. Courageous leaders take seriously the responsibility of leadership. They view it as a social contract in which they are tasked with protecting their people, the organizational values, and the organizational culture. From a psychological perspective, courage refers to speaking truth to power, taking risks and innovating, addressing conflicts directly, speaking up when others violate core values, making tough leadership decisions, and shielding team members from blame/taking ownership of team mistakes or failures.
The Threat: The Temptations of Self-Protection and the Easy Path
We aren’t practicing leadership courage if we aren’t taking risks. Some risks are quite small and others can be enormous. Avoiding displays of courage can become a habit – a habit that keeps us out of harm’s way. A habit that avoids unpleasant conflicts, power struggles, or conversations. A habit that ensures our safety and security. The easy thing to do at work is to keep one’s head down, to fall in line with the powers that be, and to avoid big, controversial, or provocative leadership decisions. That’s the easy thing to do – but that isn’t leadership.
In his second book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek provides an interesting and eloquent description of leadership. Framing leadership from an anthropological perspective, he states that leadership means “going first.”23 When humans were still organized into small tribes of hunters and gatherers, each tribe had a leader – the Alpha. The Alpha was the biggest and strongest male in the tribe – and he reaped the benefits of leadership. He was afforded the best food and the female perceived to be most procreative. Today, leaders get bigger salaries and a nicer office. Thousands of years ago, it was, as Sinek puts it, “first choice of meat and first choice of mate.“24
But the tribe didn’t give away these perqs for free. They kept the Alpha well-fed and strong so that when a predator attacked the tribe, they could turn to the Alpha and say, “You’re up big boy – this is why we kept you well-fed and strong.” In other words, leadership – real leadership – is a social contract in which the leader is expected to venture into danger first. The leader is expected to put himself in harm’s way for the good of the tribe. Yes, you get more money, a nicer office, visibility to higher-status leaders, and the power to influence – but you are supposed to earn those rewards by your willingness to take risks and to protect the people within the system who have less power and authority.
Imbedded within the previous statements about leadership is a moral claim – leaders have a responsibility to protect their people – to keep them safe – to give them the best opportunities for success. Leaders don’t throw people under the bus but rather take responsibility when things go wrong. Leaders act out the values they espouse – even when there is a price to pay for doing so. Leadership, from a prosocial perspective, is a fundamentally moral undertaking.
I saw the power of leadership courage a few years ago in my work environment. I was working in a boutique consulting firm, well-known for the insightfulness of our leadership assessments. We were able to describe leaders and executives with such accuracy, fidelity, and depth that clients were often left baffled (though terribly pleased). We were in the midst of an assessment project with a client and had been producing a great many reports over a 3-month period. As I was looking at an assessment data dashboard and using it to write an executive’s development report, I noticed something didn’t quite look right with the data. I dug a little deeper (going back to the raw data input) and found that a data point was incorrect. It wasn’t an insignificant data point either – it was a percentile score on a critical thinking test.
It appeared we had been using the wrong norm group and were therefore under-representing people’s critical thinking skills – again, not a small issue. I went to our founder (my boss) and described what I had uncovered. I was sick to my stomach – as we used this assessment process for both development and selection applications. I was worried we might have cost someone a job based upon our mistake.
Our administrator researched the problem and determined that it was a systemic error that had been repeated many times – it had affected approximately 60 assessments. The magnitude of the error was relatively small (on average about 5 points on a percentile scale). The percentile scores were translated into a rough, 6-point rating scale – so a few percentile points didn’t actually change many ratings in the reports. None of the errors affected a selection case because any candidates we had recommended as “do not hire” had other fatal flaws as well.
The founder and I discussed what we should tell our client. This was our largest client and losing them would pose an existential threat to our firm’s survival. We went round and round. I’m not proud to say, but we discussed not telling the client. We were worried about losing them and the future of our firm. The mistake was small and didn’t substantively change any conclusions about any of the leaders – that was the rationalization. Then, the founder of our firm said, “No. We have to tell them.”
“Look at our values statement,” he responded. I knew it well and knew he was referring to the value statement: “Speak the truth, always.”
“If we don’t tell them, then we aren’t who we say we are,” he said soberly.
In that moment, I realized he was the real deal. I realized our claims of being a values-based consulting practice were not based upon empty rhetoric but backed up with hard-earned integrity. We told the client. We were worried it would diminish their trust in us – but we were (and most importantly, our founder was) willing to live with those consequences. Thankfully, the client reacted with appreciation. We were told our honesty and integrity were precisely why they chose to work with us. They appreciated our candor, concurred with our conclusions that the mistake had minimal impact, and continued to work with us.
I also realized how easy it is to slip into a pattern of self-protective decision-making. The courage of our founder – his willingness to practice our espoused values regardless of the consequences – allowed us to hold our heads high. It allowed us to know who we were and to be authentic. My respect for him, which was already significant, was further enhanced that day. He was a leader worth following.
The Prosocial Reaction: Bear the Burden and Build the Habit
Prosocial leaders take on the responsibility of doing what is right, regardless of the cost. They accept the responsibility of leadership and forge ahead. Below are suggested practices for building and practicing leadership courage…
First, be anchored by purpose and buoyed by values. Remain focused on your mission – which is partly about the organizational mission and partly (I would suggest) about your social contract with the people whom you lead. Take seriously the responsibility of fulfilling those two purposes and avoid the temptation to sacrifice people for the organizational objective – it’s a false choice and a short-term remedy. Instead, bear the burden of your leadership responsibility and be guided by your values. They are bumper rails that will keep you on the road.
Second, think about your legacy. “What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself?”25 The internal angst we experience when we drift away from who we are and who we want to be is real and significant. It creates an internal disruption – a dissonance at the very core of our personal identity.
It is often exceptionally tempting to take the path of least resistance in an effort to avoid near-term risk and discomfort. One way to overcome this temptation is to focus on your long-term legacy. Think, for a moment, about the end of your career. Will you be able to look back, hold your head high, and claim you spoke the truth, valued people, and pushed back against wrongdoing? Did you practice what you espoused? Did you operate with integrity?
Here’s a thought exercise I use personally and employ with clients: Imagine it is 1-3 years from now and you take the easy path – who will you be? How might your organization and the people around you suffer as a result? Keep the big picture, the long-term, and your personal legacy in mind when tempted to take the easy path.
Third, develop your skills for pushing back. The courage to speak truth to power, to take responsibility for one’s team, to address conflict, and to make tough decisions will be buoyed by the development of skills. Work on honing your skills for having difficult conversations – these skills actually reduce the risk to you and will help you navigate complexity more effectively. I recommend all leaders (and aspiring leaders) read Difficult Conversations – written by three researchers from Harvard’s Negotiation Project.26 I’ve recommended this book to more leaders and executives than any other single resource. It is chalked full of critical insights and practical suggestions.
Fourth, build courageous habits incrementally. It is tempting to treat small transgressions of values as insignificant. We can simply tell ourselves that we’ll be there when it matters most. When the big moment arises, we will demonstrate courage and integrity. The unromantic truth about leadership is that there are very few big moments. Leadership is a hundred little choices every single day – and we’re either there or we aren’t. If we wait for the big moment to prove our courage, we’ll let a hundred little moments pass us by.
Start small. Start with small risks. Start in somewhat safer environments and on smaller issues. As you develop your skills for pushing back and speaking up, apply them. Perhaps start at home with a family member. Then, within a social or community group. Eventually, use these skills with team members and colleagues. Finally, apply these skills to relationships with superiors. As you build competence and confidence, you will become a force to be reckoned with. Courageous and skilled leaders are a rarity – they are people to whom others listen – they are people who exert outsized influence.
The Psychology that Undergirds Prosocial Leadership
Based upon the extant psychological literature on leadership and my experiences as an organizational consultant and executive coach, I believe there to be at least four fundamental psychological mechanisms that make the practices of prosocial leadership successful at enhancing organizational and team member outcomes.
If you are like me, your career aspirations, goals, and path have likely been significantly influenced by people you admire. For me, some are mentors – people I know well and who have played an active and personal role in shaping and supporting my career. Others are mere role models – people I have never met personally but whom I admire tremendously professionally. When I find people who are exceptional – in their competence, intellect, courage, morality – it inspires me to try to be a little better myself. I find myself emulating my role models in hopes of achieving some modicum of their success and brilliance. They inspire me, even though they have never met me.
Prosocial leaders who manage themselves effectively, who prioritize people, relationships, and fairness, and who strive to courageously serve a purpose beyond their own self-interest are demonstrating a kind of excellence (both moral and technical) others are apt to admire and seek to emulate. This phenomenon has different names in different literatures, including referent power,27 role modeling,28 and idealized influence.29
The capacity to influence others – both in terms of direct efforts as well as indirectly through social influence – is an often overlooked aspect of leadership. It is easy, at times, to think our actions only matter on the big things and in the big moments. However, everything we say and everything we do communicates to people what we believe, what we value, and what we prioritize. Everything we say and do matters and has the potential to significantly influence others – both people we interact with regularly and people who simply observe and admire us from afar.
When we provide others with something of value, there is generally a felt sense of obligation to provide something of value in return. Initial stages of relationships and generally low-quality relationships are characterized by highly balanced (i.e. quid pro quo) and timely reciprocation – and are referred to as transactional exchanges. The parties involved don’t particularly trust one another and are apt to become uncomfortable with even brief imbalances in the exchange relationship (particularly when the imbalance favors the other party).30
However, high-quality relationships are different. They are characterized by higher levels of trust, greater tolerance of slight imbalances, and a general desire to do right by the other party. Think of time when you have done a favor for a friend. You did not expect immediate or equal repayment of the favor. There was likely no concern that you were in the process of being exploited by your friend.
You were happy to do the favor and likely felt confident that your friend would be there for you when you needed a favor down the road. High quality exchanges in which partners have trust and provide each other latitude are called social exchanges. Despite the informal nature of these relationships, they are still characterized by reciprocity and a desire to repay debts and obligations to others.
Prosocial leaders build social exchange relationships in which others are appreciative and motivated to create value for the leader (as repayment for the prosocial actions undertaken by the leader) in the form of loyalty, commitment, increased effort, and going above and beyond what is required in the job (what are called citizenship behaviors).31
Team members are also inclined to follow where a prosocial leader ventures and to respond positively to her leadership because of trust. Or, to be more precise, because of the perceived trustworthiness of the leader. The more trustworthy we find a leader, the more likely we are to follow her. But what do we mean by trustworthy? One well-respected model of trust suggests there are essentially three legs to the trustworthiness stool: competence, benevolence, and integrity.32
We trust leaders who we believe to be competent – who are capable of navigating complex environments effectively and who will not lead us astray. The Insight & Decision-Making dimension and the Discipline & Self-Control dimension of prosocial leadership contribute directly to perceptions of a leader’s competence. We trust leaders who are good thinkers and decision-makers and who remain poised and composed in stressful situations.
We also trust leaders who we believe to be benevolent – who we believe care about us as people. A leader who cares only about himself or who is willing to sacrifice his people in order to protect his own job or reputation is not a leader who engenders trust. The Fairness & Justice dimension and the Humanity & Compassion dimension of prosocial leadership directly contribute to perceptions of a leader’s benevolence. Leaders who care enough to be fair and who care enough to build personal relationships are generally deemed trustworthy.
Finally, we trust leaders who we believe to have integrity – who we believe will follow through on their claims and commitments. A leader who constantly behaves in ways that contradict what she says is not a leader deemed worthy of trusting. However, the leader who makes bold claims about her purpose and her values – and then even more boldly holds true to them, even when it would be easier to abandon them – that’s a leader worthy of trust and worthy of followership. The Vison & Purpose dimension and the Courage & Integrity dimension of prosocial leadership directly contribute to perceptions of a leader’s integrity. Prosocial leaders put a stake in the ground and then have the courage to stay true to it.
Positive Affect Optimization
A final psychological mechanism that enables prosocial leaders to influence positive outcomes for team members is positive affective optimization – which is just a fancy way of saying that prosocial leaders, through their actions, contribute to a positive work environment in which people are more likely to experience psychological well-being (i.e., happiness).
As Shawn Achor describes in his immensely entertaining TED Talk, “the brain on positive significantly outperforms the brain on negative, neutral, or stressed.”33
Prosocial leadership is specifically designed to attend to the well-being of people – steady and thoughtful leaders who are fair yet compassionate and who inspire people with purpose and lead by example are inevitably the kinds of leaders who create healthy, positive, protective, and supportive work environments rather than dysfunctional, destructive, or toxic environments. By doing so, they create a necessary condition for others to unlock their potential.
The Benefits of Prosocial Leadership
The research on trust-based work environments, psychological well-being, and ethical leadership (i.e., prosocial leadership and work cultures) point to a wide array of desirable outcomes for employees working for prosocial leaders and in prosocial environments.34 35 36 37 38 A non-exhaustive list of outcomes includes enhanced creativity, energy, engagement, productivity, job satisfaction, life satisfaction, organizational commitment, belief in information from the leader, and commitment to the leader’s decisions.
The extant literature indicates such leadership practices and work environments are also associated with less employee stress, fewer employee sick days, less employee burnout, and lower intent to quit the organization among employees.
Of all the aforementioned benefits of prosocial leadership, perhaps the most telling and the most powerful is the enhancement of employee life satisfaction. Working for a leader who dignifies work, engages people, and inspires excellence – a leader who treats people as intrinsically valuable – can actually enhance the life satisfaction of others. There’s an old saying that people don’t quit organizations, they quit bosses. Perhaps the opposite is true as well. Perhaps the impact of prosocial leadership is so powerful that it ventures beyond the walls of the workplace and into people’s lives.
We can avoid the false choice of results or people. What kind of impact do you want to have on people’s lives? What story do you want to author?
We, committed to practicing prosocial leadership, can have a profoundly important – perhaps even life-altering – impact on our employees, our organizations, our communities, and, ultimately, our world. ∎
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Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who dignify work, engage people, and inspire excellence. Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 100 companies. In addition to running Impavid, Daniel enjoys a joint-appointment lectureship in the Leadership, Policy, & Organizations Department and the Human and Organizational Development Department in the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University.
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