The Psychology of Leadership

02 Nov 2016

Most leadership experts now agree that leaders and managers need to learn more about psychology. It is usual for people to be  promoted to leadership roles because they are technically good at what they do and not because they are experts in human behaviour and motivation.   It requires energy, effort and courage to learn to deal with the emotional, psychological and human aspects of running a business. The psychology of leadership is not the “soft” stuff – it’s the hard stuff!

Here are a few simple, applicable and effective psychological “hacks” that every leader should know:

1.      When people feel good at work, their performance improves.

There can be as much as a 30% improvement to performance when someone feels engaged and happy at work. Relationships with others at work play a key role in organizational success. Research from a wide range of sources suggests that the relationship someone has with their direct line manager makes a 70% contribution to how happy they are at work.  

Put quite simply, we are far more likely to do something if someone we like asks us to do it.

The Saratoga Institute conducted 60,000 exit interviews over 20 years and found that 80% of staff turnover is directly related to unsatisfactory relationships with one’s boss. Similarly, a Gallup Organization study of approximately 1 million workers found the number one reason people leave their jobs is because of “bad bosses.”

So, being stressed at work affects our performance and increases the likelyhood that we will leave our jobs.

2.      Excessive stress can affect performance

The way our brains function has not evolved since we were cave dwellers. We experience a threat response to feeling unhappy at work in the same way as we would respond to being faced by a wild bear. Adrenaline and cortisol flood our systems to give us the ability to fight or flee. We don’t need blue sky thinking or to brainstorm new ideas with the bear. We need to survive – do I live or die? So our brain shuts down our usual creativity and ability to generate options and our thinking becomes black or white, all or nothing. Our IQ can drop up to 20 points. We have a win/lose mentality. All of which would be necessary for our survival when facing a wild animal but has a serious impact on performance or productivity in the workplace, not to mention on our long-term health.

3.      Attention is an antidote to stress

How do you ensure your employees are not operating from a threat response? Give them attention. Neuroscience has taught us that when we are given attention by someone (even for a few minutes) stress relieving hormones flood our brains and our thinking improves. We are more able to generate solutions to problems. We feel valued.

Associated with the need for attention is the need for praise and recognition.  A 2013 study of 1200 people across a variety of industries found that 83% of respondents said recognition for contributions was more fulfilling than any financial rewards or gifts. 90% said a “fun work environment” was motivating for them.

The recommended ratio of praise to criticism in all relationships is 5:1 and research suggests we can cope with up to 13:1 before starting to feel a bit nauseated!

4.      To keep people motivated, understand how they motivate themselves.

Some people are motivated towards what they want and others are motivated away from what they don’t want. They each get to the same goal but they get there by using  different motivational strategies. Get curious about how people motivate themselves. The language you use to motivate them can make a big difference to the outcome. It can be as simple as asking “Imagine how you feel when you have achieved this?” or “Think what it will be like if you don’t make this happen?” Don’t make the easy mistake of motivating others in the same way as you motivate yourself – we are all surprisingly different and a good leader will seek to understand the differences in their team members.

This post is based on a presentation Kim Morgan, CEO of Barefoot Coaching, gave at the High Growth Summit in 2016. If you want to find out more about how psychology and coaching can help your leadership performance get in touch on or click here.