A few years ago in the UK, a Panorama investigation uncovered systematic abuse of elderly care home residents who were being routinely pushed about, belittled and humiliated by their so-called carers.
Worse, when whistleblowers drew attention to the abuse it was they themselves who were disciplined by senior management. Empathy for the victims seemed in short supply as it took a TV investigation for action to be taken.
This is just one example in a long line of depressing stories about toxic leadership. From MPs to journalists, and leaders in organisations from Big Tech to oil, the modern era seems one where empathy, care and values in leadership can be in short supply.
Values and leadership
Theorists like Bruce Avolio have argued that we need a more authentic form of leadership, which connects leaders to what really matters to them. This acts as a kind of compass for leaders, which is especially useful in times of uncertainty (read; now).
Connecting leaders more powerfully with their values is also important because it has been shown to generate positive psychological outcomes in followers.
There is one slight problem with these ‘authentic’ forms of leadership: they are bloody difficult to do.
Leadership values easily get derailed by circumstance and expedience as well as by existing organisational cultures. It takes a special kind of courage to execute values in practice.
Yet most modern leadership theories (and training) deal with values as though all that remains after identifying them is to go off and do them.
Good luck with that.
Understanding our values is only half the battle. Values have a flipside – an admission price.
Put simply, pursuing our values makes life psychologically harder, not easier. We tend to hurt where we care.
It is much easier to avoid this psychological discomfort – something that psychologists call experiential avoidance. However in the turning away from our discomfort, we often turn away from our values.
This is why experiential avoidance is perhaps the biggest driver of substandard leadership behaviour (as well as in clinical contexts, poorer mental health).
After all it’s far easier to avoid that awkward but important conversation than to have it.
how can we help our leaders live their values in practice?
Psychological flexibility is a concept which started in the clinical context (over 850 randomised control trials show its effectiveness in improving mental health) but is now gaining traction in organisations.
Many of my organisational clients are introducing this training, not least because psychological flexibility is so practical, and especially effective with difficult situations involving ambiguity or uncertainty – what Todd Kashdan ‘calls the messiness of human life’.
Psychological flexibility is important in leadership for three reasons:
- It helps people clarify and understand their values in practice, not just in theory.
- It helps people stay more aware of the present moment, which means that they are more likely to notice opportunities to be empathetic and engaged with other people.
- It gives leaders the skills to move towards their values and deal with the psychological cost of doing so. By building willingness to have difficult thoughts and emotions, it reduces the natural human tendency to avoid them.
Too many leadership training programmes focus on values and forget to train people in the skills that help them live their values.
Yet unless we do this, leaders will continue to run from the pain that empathy brings them.