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What Psychological Tools and Knowledge Should a Great Leader Have?

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A great leader is more than just someone who oversees processes and achieves key objectives; they are individuals who inspire and support their teams, creating an environment where people can thrive. According to Dale Carnegie, while a manager may focus on resources and KPIs, a true leader engages with people to bring out their best qualities and potential.

Psychological theory underscores the importance of a supportive and challenging environment for optimal performance and motivation. Leaders who inspire and encourage personal growth are often those who understand and apply various psychological methods and theories.

Here are several psychological approaches that can help leaders understand and motivate their team members effectively:

Listening skills

Effective listening is a fundamental skill for any leader. A good listener allows team members to express themselves fully, reflects on and summarises what has been heard, and responds in a non-judgemental and empathetic manner. Although maintaining emotional control is crucial, active engagement can be demonstrated through nodding, asking follow-up questions, and making encouraging gestures, which show the leader’s genuine interest in the conversation. A good listener also takes the perspective of the speaker, making them feel seen and heard.

Exiting the Karpman Triangle

The Karpman Drama Triangle is a model that describes dysfunctional social interactions, where individuals adopt the roles of victim, rescuer, or persecutor. Leaders can transform these roles into more positive ones: the victim becomes the creator, taking ownership of their choices; the rescuer becomes the coach, teaching skills without overstepping boundaries; and the persecutor becomes the challenger, offering constructive feedback without emotional overreaction. By shifting these roles, leaders can foster more responsible and empowering interactions within their teams.

The link between stress and performance

Understanding the relationship between stress and performance is crucial for effective leadership. Hans Selye’s research on stress responses reveals that stress initially triggers alarm, followed by adaptation, and eventually leads to exhaustion if not managed properly. Leaders should help their teams build resilience and adapt to stress by maintaining an optimal level of challenge. This balance prevents burnout and keeps the immune system robust. Recognising that both under-stimulation and excessive stress are detrimental, leaders must ensure their teams feel engaged yet not overwhelmed.

Using CBT techniques

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques can be valuable tools for leaders. These techniques help staff reframe their thoughts and perceptions, which in turn can influence their behaviours positively. For example, overgeneralisation, catastrophising, and all-or-nothing thinking are common cognitive distortions that can hinder performance. Leaders can guide their team members to challenge these thought patterns, encouraging them to rationalise fears and test the reality of their concerns. This approach not only reduces anxiety but also builds self-esteem by focusing on past successes and strengths.

Understanding ego states

Transactional analysis, a theory developed by Eric Berne, includes the concept of ego states – patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that can be classified as parent, adult, or child. Effective leaders communicate in the Adult state, treating others with respect and avoiding controlling or manipulative behaviours. This approach fosters mature, productive interactions and helps avoid misunderstandings and conflicts that arise from parent-child or child-child dynamics.

The stress container

The stress container is a metaphorical tool used to manage and release stress effectively. Leaders can help their team members identify sources of stress and find ways to release it incrementally. By regularly addressing and alleviating stress, leaders can prevent burnout and maintain a healthy, productive work environment.

Creating a staff well-being action plan

A well-being action plan is a proactive tool for maintaining mental health and well-being in the workplace. Leaders can work with their team members to identify stress triggers, develop coping strategies, and create a supportive work environment. This plan not only addresses current mental health issues but also promotes ongoing wellness and reduces the stigma around mental health in the workplace.

Understanding personality types

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or Belbin Team Roles can help identify personality types, and understanding them can improve team dynamics. Leaders who understand their own and their team members’ personalities can tailor their communication and management styles to suit individual preferences and strengths. This approach helps in creating a harmonious and efficient team where each member can thrive.

Reflecting on unconscious biases

Leaders should be aware of their unconscious biases and encourage their teams to do the same. Taking an implicit association test can reveal hidden biases and guide individuals towards more equitable behaviours. Additionally, promoting cultural awareness and diversity through events and training can foster an inclusive workplace where discrimination and disrespect are not tolerated.

Using the emotions wheel

The emotions wheel is a tool that helps individuals recognise and articulate their emotions. Leaders can use this tool to improve emotional intelligence within their teams. By acknowledging and appropriately addressing emotions, team members can manage their feelings better and contribute to a healthier, more supportive work environment.

Great leaders utilise a variety of psychological tools and knowledge to inspire, support, and motivate their teams. By fostering an environment of respect, understanding, and continuous growth, leaders can unlock the full potential of their team members and achieve remarkable results.

Elizabeth Kaplunov, PhD is a chartered psychologist who evaluates projects about health technology for disabled and vulnerable people.

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