My book Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (co-authored with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee) argues that resonant leaders, who exhibit attributes of emotional and social intelligence, are better able to connect with others most effectively – and so lead well. At the time we wrote the book, there was no specific study we could as yet cite that had been designed to test this idea. But now direct data is building
One new study found that nurses going through the intense stress of layoffs and reorganization in a budget-cutting health system were buffered when their leaders were resonant – and intensified when leaders were not. Resonant leaders can, for example, listen to workers’ negative feelings, and respond empathically and supportively, a crucial skill during chaotic times. In general, resonant leaders build positive work climates, while dissonant leaders are out of synch and out of touch, creating disharmony.
The study assessed the impact on nurses of the four resonant styles we describe in Primal Leadership – visionary, coaching, affiliative, and democratic – and the two dissonant ones, pace-setting and commanding. All the nurses felt pressured by the cutbacks, and that they were less able to give their patients the care they felt they should. But the nurses who had dissonant leaders reported three times the unmet patient care needs compared to those who had supportive leaders. And when leaders were dissonant, nurses reported feeling emotionally exhausted four times more frequently.
Nurses with resonant leaders reported improved emotional health, while those with dissonant leaders said their emotional health was declining. Of course resonant leaders are no substitute for adequate staffing and fair salaries – the overall negative impact of cutbacks on nurses’ morale and patient care was a given in the study. But it highlights the crucial difference social and emotional intelligence in leaders can make, particularly during a crisis and in high stress workplaces.
In Chapter 18 of Social Intelligence I elaborate on just why supportive leadership is particularly essential to prevent burnout in jobs like nursing, where people are asked to empathize with and respond to clients or patients in distress. This study found that nurses who experienced emotional exhaustion (a sure sign of incipient burnout) had more stress-triggered physical complaints themselves, and more unmet patient care needs; their emotional health and satisfaction with their jobs plummeted. Had I seen this study while writing the book, I would have cited it as helping make this case.
The study, done by a research group at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, was published in the journal Nursing Research [January/February 2005].