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Leadership is all about the system

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Leadership is all about the system

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In the leadership world it’s tempting to think of leaders as super heroes that can impart their iron will upon any situation through little more than the force of their personality.  My previous blog touched on how this approach seldom works, and that a more effective approach is to look at the environment people are placed in instead.

A new study explores this issue more deeply by investigating how the situations we find ourselves in alter our personality.  This research suggests that while our personality at work has a stable, predictable quality, experience of meaningful events produces ‘personality states’ that deviate from our baseline traits.

Participants had their personalities measured at the beginning of the experiment to test for the so called big 5 traits of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness and neuroticism.  Over the following ten day period, each participant was asked to provide a daily work diary together with a recording of their personality that day (according to the aforementioned big 5 traits).

The aim was to see how influential the previous days events at work were on the following days personality.  Research suggests that the day is a meaningful unit for investigation, possibly because of the way sleep functions to consolidate experiences into learning; it also makes claims about causality more credible than looking at variables simultaneously.

The research came to a number of interesting findings.  For instance, when participants engaged in helpful and collaborative behaviours at work, it led to higher levels of extraversion, openness to experience and agreeableness the following day.  When participants engaged in personal goalsetting, the next day they were conscientious and intrinsically motivated.

Understanding that personality isn’t some static entity but something much more elastic and molded by our environment is crucial to leadership and management.  It underlines the virtuous cycle that can emerge when employees begin to exhibit positive behaviours at work, and keeps us aware of the power of dynamics in a working environment.

If we want to encourage the kind of behaviours that are frequently cited as leading to an engaged workforce, we need to create an environment that encourages them.  Work on the system and the behaviours will fall into place.

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