Why fun is a better advisor than fear

Leadership + Management |

Picture: Sally Helgesen

What keeps you up at night? In interviews, this question is presented to most senior leaders. Its essentially negative nature is not very helpful, though, argues Sally Helgesen, a leadership development consultant, in Strategy & Business. “The question assumes that leaders are in the habit to let worry pervade their every hour, even those precious few required to refresh, balance, and sustain human effort.”

The more important question should be: What makes me leap out of bed in the morning? If we focus on the invocation of opportunity rather than terror, we’ll recognize an important point, says Helgesen: It is more productive to start the day eagerly than it is to greet it “in a defensive crouch brought on by post-midnight agony.”

And it is a far more powerful way to lead an organisation.

As leaders on the lookout for opportunity can build engagement in the organisation, they also can undermine engagement by exuding negative energy, argues Helgesen, quoting Beverly Kaye, founder of Career Systems International, an engagement and development consultancy, who has been examining the sources of employee engagement. “One of the first questions we asked people when doing our original research on engagement in the 1990s was what about their work motivated them to get out of bed in the morning,” says Kaye. “If you understand that, you can understand what engages people.”

People's basic need in their work are to feel valued, to be able to use their skill sets and to be challenged by new ways to exercise and build skills.” If jobs don’t give people the opportunity to fulfil these basic needs, many employees will leave — and the best are often the first to go. “And those who stay will often check out mentally and simply disengage, which from an organisational point is probably worse,” says Kaye.

People leave when they are not able to see opportunities in their job, which is why a focus on opportunities rather than challenges is critical in a leader. Leaders who are optimistic about what their people can accomplish, and see daring situations through the lens of opportunity, inspire confidence throughout the organisation. And leaders who worry a lot set a tone that spreads discouragement. 

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