Maryland Smith Research / January 31, 2023

The Simple Act That Can Make You a Better Leader at Work and Happier at Home

The Simple Act That Can Make You a Better Leader at Work and Happier at Home

Being a leader is about more than a title; it’s a mindset. And it fluctuates – people may feel more “leader-like” on some days than others. Feeling capable and confident can make leaders more successful for their organizations, so helping them feel the part every day is critical. New research shows that the simple act of starting the day with some positive self-reflection can have big impacts on how a leader feels about their role and consequently make them better leaders at work and happier at home.

The research, published in the Journal of Management, comes from Trevor Foulk, a management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Foulk worked with Klodiana Lanaj of the University of Florida and Remy Jennings of Florida State University to look at what organizations can do to nudge leaders to identify more strongly with their leader role.

“Boosting leader identity is an important part of leadership skill development,” says Foulk. “Developing a person’s leader identity happens through positive leadership experiences at work – and beyond – and through interpersonal interactions.”

"Being a great leader is not just about having the title – it's also about feeling like a leader," says Foulk.  "And even great leaders don't 'feel it' every day, so it's important to develop strategies to help put leaders in the right mindset so that they can be as successful as possible"

For leaders, being effective in their role is central to their self-worth, so they pay close attention to how well they are doing at meeting goals at work. Leaders’ activities at work also have implications for their well-being at home, says Foulk.

“That high you get when you’re really on top of your game at work carries over to home – you feel good about what you’ve accomplished so you can relax more at home and feel better about yourself in general,” he says.

Foulk and his co-authors wanted to see what happened for leaders when they were asked to reflect on their identities as leaders each day. They conducted two studies. In one, they surveyed a group of leaders every morning, afternoon and evening to check on how they were feeling about their leader role, their goal progress and their daily self-esteem, meaning in life and relaxation. On some days, the researchers asked the participants to do a daily morning writing exercise to reflect about the qualities that make them a good leader. They found that leaders reported higher activated leader identity and more progress toward their goals on days when they completed the writing exercise.

Furthermore, because making progress on their work goals is important for most leaders, the authors found that on days when they participated in the intervention and therefore made better goal progress, they experienced enhanced well-being after work. Specifically, on the days they completed the intervention, goal progress caused leaders to feel more self-esteem, more relaxed, and like their work-life was more meaningful. 

“This is important, as the leader role can often be difficult and arduous, and many leaders suffer because of their roles as leader,” Foulk says. “Our study shows a simple intervention that leaders can do to actually increase their overall well-being after work.”

In the second study, Foulk and his co-authors surveyed nearly 800 people who lead teams at companies throughout the United States. They had some of the leaders reflect on their positive qualities and accomplishments, and other leaders reflect on negative qualities that hindered their abilities to be a good leader. In that study, they found while reflecting positively on one’s identity as a leader made leaders feel more leader-like, reflecting negatively on one’s identity as a leader made leaders feel less leader-like.

“Although leaders rarely engage in self-reflection because of their busy and fast-paced work, self-reflection is crucial to leadership development,” write the researchers. “Reflecting about times and situations when they exhibited leadership, especially when these experiences are perceived as positive, may push leaders to more strongly identify with their leader role in the moment.”

Foulk recommends that leaders add self-reflection to their morning routine. That could mean using a phone app or setting a calendar reminder to encourage you to reflect positively about your leadership role as you get ready at home. Or use your commute time or set aside the first few minutes of your workday while you’re making your daily to-do list at work.

“Just taking a few minutes for positive reflection can make all the difference in not only improving a leader’s performance at work, but also improving their well-being during off-hours at home,” Foulk says.

Read the research, “Improving the Lives of Leaders: The Beneficial Effects of Positive Leader Self-Reflection,” in the Journal of Management.

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