An Intervention for Low-Energy Leaders

Self-Reflection Through Writing Rejuvenates Burned Out Bosses

Apr 04, 2019
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Adding a simple writing exercise to the morning routine can energize leaders and make them more effective throughout the day, new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business shows.

“Putting words to experiences promotes self-understanding, reduces inhibition and increases awareness of one’s priorities and goals,” Maryland Smith professor Trevor Foulk and two co-authors from the University of Florida write in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

To get the energy-boosting effect, however, leaders cannot just write about anything. They must reflect on things they like about themselves as leaders. “Writing about the positive aspects of the self can influence the way individuals think and feel about themselves,” the authors find.

The implications are significant, considering data that suggest 96 percent of senior leaders feel some degree of burnout from their jobs. “The leader role is demanding and depleting,” the authors write. “Although the leadership literature recognizes the important role that leaders play in their organizations, it has largely overlooked the fact that leaders have limited energy reserves.”

Prior research explores the causes and consequences of energy depletion, but few studies look at energy recuperation. Those that do advocate for better sleep, frequent breaks and caffeinated and/or sugary beverages at work.

“Although helpful, these solutions may be impractical or undesirable for leaders when implemented over the course of many days,” the authors write. They suggest a morning self-reflection through expressive writing as an alternate intervention without negative side effects.

To test the effectiveness of the ritual, the authors provided daily writing prompts to a group of 75 business leaders over a two-week period. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a control condition on any given day, and half were assigned to an experimental condition. Overall, each participant spent five days in each condition.

Those in the control condition wrote about leadership-neutral topics, such as “three noticeable objects in your office” or “three noticeable landmarks that you pass on your way to work.”

Those in the experimental condition focused on variations of the same prompt: “Think and then write about three positive qualities you possess as a leader.” In all cases, study participants were asked to write two to six sentences each day.

Follow-up questionnaires measured their perceptions of impact and clout, two key indicators of engaged leadership. “We found that leaders experienced less depletion and through it heightened work engagement on intervention vs. control days,” the authors conclude.

A companion study involving 373 full-time employees at a crowdsourcing company showed that the effectiveness of the intervention is limited to those holding leadership positions.

Read more: Lanaj, K., Foulk, T. A., & Erez, A. (2019). Energizing leaders via self-reflection: A within-person field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 1-18.

About the Author(s)

Trevor Foulk

Dr. Trevor Foulk is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, and his Bachelors of Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts.

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