Losing it: When the boss becomes a monster

New research links emotional self-regulation to a capacity to maintain attention

There's no shortage of bosses behaving badly but there's a good explanation for it. A new study shows emotional resilience is the secret weapon in the armoury of today's successful leaders and a simple test can sort those with the right stuff from abusive supervisors and ineffective decision-makers.

CEOs, senior executives and politicians who make the right calls likely share in common the capability to regulate their negative emotions – fear, anger and anxiety – giving themselves the opportunity to pay attention and think clearly.

The more emotionally resilient have a higher "attentional resource capacity" and the ability to test for this in leaders has important implications for individuals and organisations.

It offers the potential for employers to pick who will have what it takes to lead constructively as the era of disruption with its inherent ambiguity and information overload rolls on – and, just as importantly, who won't.

For those ambitious to lead and bosses already guilty of bad behaviour, there's the chance to recognise when emotions may be clouding their ability to make good decisions and take steps towards achieving greater clarity under pressure, ultimately improving their ability to lead well.

Chris Jackson, a professor in the school of management at UNSW Business School, along with PhD candidate Michael Collins, monitored and measured how negative emotions had an impact on the behaviour of 161 performance-oriented managers and executives as part of a leadership development program during a 15-month period.

Participants' emotional responses and behaviour under pressure was revealed when they completed maths tests with varying degrees of difficulty.

"A mathematical test is exactly the kind of task leaders undergo when being selected for jobs or in a development course," says Jackson.

Importantly this was a real-world test, part of a formal set of assessments and the participants' careers depended on the outcomes. Stakes were high.

"They were genuinely motivated to succeed and felt a sense of frustration and anger when they didn't," emphasises Jackson. "In real life, this becomes abusive leadership."

'Some people naturally have the capacity to fix and maintain attention – or, as we like to say, they have greater bandwidth than others' 


Automatic and habitual

Jackson and Collins found negative emotions can start getting in the way as a challenge looms, but those with the ability to regulate their emotions make better decisions and, consequently, fewer errors. The difficulty of the task, of course, affects outcomes.

Pivotal is attentional resource capacity, a hot topic in the growing field of neuroscience that deals with how the brain processes information. How easy or hard is it for us to pay attention?

"Some people naturally have the capacity to fix and maintain attention – or, as we like to say, they have greater bandwidth than others," says Collins.

"You can't grow that capacity – we're yet to see any real evidence this is possible. So it comes down to how efficiently you use it. We waste bandwidth by getting overwhelmed by our emotions.

"Some people have a higher sensitivity in the ability of the brain to switch out fear when faced with a threat – it may be a test or delivering bad news to the board – and some get caught up in that threat. They entertain anxieties, fear and anger, and ruminate on them and, as they're churning through those thoughts, they have less capacity left to solve problems."

The counterpoint – self-control – is easier said than achieved.

"Self-control is a conscious act, whereas self-regulation is an umbrella term that covers our capacity to control our emotions," explains Collins. The more frustrated and angrier we become the more our capacity to pay attention is chewed up.

"A lot of this stuff is automatic and habitual. We're often not aware it's happening."

There's a tendency to blame leaders for behaving badly or distractedly, observes Collins, a former army major who helps executives from some of Australia's biggest corporations to maximise leadership abilities through the consultancy, Hipotential.

"It's important to keep in mind that they're usually doing it unintentionally," he says.

"This research suggests on many occasions they're doing it unconsciously. After working with executives over the years, I've found they're often totally surprised that people would see them as bullying and harassing – they have no insight into that at all."

While natural "bandwidth" and self-regulation are vital to determining who will and won't be a destructive or constructive leader, the study also turns up evidence for who will become a truly transformational leader by being proactive about implementing change.

"The research actually predicts more proactive behaviour by leaders in the workplace," says Collins. 

And, not surprisingly, the more bandwidth or attentional resource capacity you have, the more likely you are to get ahead of the game.

'Think about the times in life when you stop or slowdown and reflect on something in a more dispassionate way – that’s when you make better decisions' 


Unprecedented pressure

There's a greater tendency for leaders to behave badly these days, Collins believes. He cites the overwhelming amount of information and the 24/7 business cycle for putting people under unprecedented pressure.

Jackson adds that people feel they're more under the spotlight to make good decisions because they're held accountable now in ways they never were in the past.

In 2013, a Safe Work Australia inquiry found rates of workplace bullying in Australia far outstripped international rates. The rising incidence of depression in workers represented an $8 billion cost for employers with $693 million directly due to job strain or bullying.

"Organisations need to understand they cannot pile the pressure on people more than they can actually deal with or things will go wrong. It leads to an abusive environment in which staff leave or litigate or generally become demotivated," says Jackson.

Commonly suggested solutions include putting in place clearer job descriptions, providing more support and broadly not putting everyone under so much pressure.?

"What must be understood is that we have an ancient brain that is supposed to be able to adapt to a complex modern unpredictable stressful world. Our brain hasn't caught up and it won't catch up," Collins insists. "It underlines the need to be much more efficient in how we use our limited attentional resource capacity."

Jackson says that an awareness of what happens in the brain is just the first step: "There needs to be awareness you may be impaired in the way you're behaving and you may be able to find simple ways to reduce your sense of frustration … A good night's sleep will often improve your attentional resource capacity. Drinking [alcohol] will probably reduce it."

 Self-regulation strategies

Collins suggests practising mindfulness and cognitive behaviour strategies may reduce emotional overload, along with coaching or workshops to help leaders understand the relationship between how they perceive a situation, their thinking style, and how that influences strong negative emotions.

The next step is learning self-regulation strategies to reduce the intensity of their emotions so they react more appropriately to difficult situations.

"Think about the times in life when you stop or slowdown and reflect on something in a more dispassionate way – that's when you make better decisions," says Collins.

According to Jackson, this is a breakthrough study because it shows how to predict both constructive and destructive leadership from one model: "In literature, they're often looked at as separate causes, whereas this is a generic model that links together a whole range of leadership outcomes."

While seemingly similar to the psychometric and ability tests widely used to choose job candidates and appraise employees in organisations today, "the analyses used to measure attentional resource capacity are different", Jackson says. "And there is the potential to intervene."

A process model of self-regulation and leadership: How attentional resource capacity and negative emotions influence constructive and destructive leadership.


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