All leaders can develop a resonant relationship with their employees using three simple steps, but it means not being disengaged by stress and showing your compassion.

Great leaders move us to perform and innovate in ways we had not envisioned. They do it through a special type of relationship with us – they are in tune with us, and we with them. When people work with effective leaders (leaders who bring out the best in them) they have established what we call a resonant relationship.

Resonant leaders inspire others through consistent, positive relationships and emotions. This is exactly what we mean when we describe someone who helps us transform our organisations.

So how can a leader develop and maintain resonant relationship with employees? How do the others around the leader – subordinates, peers, bosses, clients – develop and maintain resonant relationships with the leaders?

1. Inspire through hope and vision

To learn and remember something, you need a context. Effective leaders regularly remind others of the purpose of the organisation. This is not a goal or strategy, but the reason the organisation exists. Resonant leaders keep reminding us of that purpose – and when it’s big and noble, it makes others feel valued and they develop a sense of hope for the future. When undergoing transformation, it is important to remind employees of the reasons for change and to bring them along on the transformation journey. While we are tramping through the mud and muck of day to day challenges during a change effort, we need the big picture for a sense of direction, to focus our attention, and give us hope.

2. Spread compassion

Secondly, resonant relationships are characterised by a sense of compassion, a sense of caring and understanding. Employees who develop trust in their leader are more likely to accept and contribute to the transformation process. Quite simply, when we feel someone cares for us, we typically care back. This mutuality establishes that everyone feels protected even as they venture into new activities and sometimes risky ones.

3. Be mindful

Finally, a sense of mindfulness is needed where both the leader and their employees are being authentic. Both parties are genuine, and feel in tune with the other. Leaders need to be transparent and encourage open communication with employees, especially during transformation. For leaders, this means employing a leadership style characterised by two-way dialogue and inspiring others, not command and control.

Stress and resonance

So why aren’t there more resonant leaders? Many people fail to recognise that leadership is fundamentally a relationship. Decades of competency research has found that most people in positions of leadership and management just aren’t able to develop or maintain these resonant relationships, which considerably diminishes their effectiveness.

Most people in leadership and management positions have relationships that are more characterised by dissonance or disengagement. They are overwhelmed with stress, and have an obsessive focus on numbers or tasks as if that will resolve the problems when in fact it is a form of metric escapism which creates distance with the people around them.

Annoying stress, such as sitting in heavy traffic, are the kind of stress that fills our days and becomes chronic stress. This chronic stress takes the greatest toll on our lives and relationships. Our bodies and minds need a certain amount of stress, yet we were not built to handle such a load on a daily and weekly basis.

Studies have found that when leaders are under this stress, what David McClelland called power stress, they are actually cognitively, emotionally, and perceptually impaired. To counter-balance this overload of stress, leaders need to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and related neural networks. This can be done with doses of hope, compassion and mindfulness. This could include meditation, yoga, tai chi, exercise, prayer, feeling hopeful about the future, volunteering, and having loving relationships. Undertaking these activities on a daily basis can help rebuild your body and mind to be cognitively at your best. But it can also be done at work in talking to others.

Creating a positive impact for change

Another characteristic of a resonant leader is their ability to inspire and energise others by engaging what is called positive emotional attractors. Humans are neurologically wired to pick up the emotions of others in eight to 40 milliseconds, through the brain’s open loop system. These subtle clues are contagious. If you’re in a leadership position, you’re even more contagious because people are watching you for cues. We need both positive and negative attractors; the negative (the stress response) to survive and the positive to thrive. But because the negative attractors are stronger, we have to over-sample the positive ones.

A positive emotional attractor can be aroused every day at work when coaching others with compassion. Most coaching and mentoring efforts are focused on a person’s weaknesses and things they need to improve. By taking a negative, problem-solving approach, it actually has the opposite effect. The person being mentored closes down or goes into a defensive mode.

Performance improvement and development should always start with the positive emotional attractor. To get people to change, especially in the context of creating a culture of transformation, ask them to think about what they really want from life and coach them to create the possibility of getting to that vision. Frame the situation or issue in a positive light, or highlight an individual’s strengths. By coaching with compassion, others are more open to the possibilities suggested and will emotionally engage with them. Motivating people to bring their talent to work is critical for successful organisational transformation.

To be sustainable, leaders must draw positive emotional attractors from their own vision, dreams, and memorable or powerful personal experiences. Only then can leaders start to glow, infect others with their positive spirit and become a truly effective leader.


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About Contributor

Richard E. Boyatzis is a Professor in the Departments of Organisational Behaviour, Psychology and Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and in Human Resources at ESADE in Barcelona. He is a frequent guest lecturer at management schools throughout Europe and the US and has consulted to many Fortune 500 corporations. Dr. Boyatzis has written over 100 articles on leadership, motivation, behavioural change, emotional intelligence and managerial competencies. He holds a BS in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT and a MA and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard University.

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