Could leadership coaching be the missing link in our efforts to create a happier, healthier and safer workplace?
At first blush, the relationship between coaching and workplace wellness may not seem that obvious. Most HR professionals are well versed in the benefits of coaching, from the executive suite all the way down to the front-line managers. Coaching can make your leaders more effective and productive, drive higher engagement scores and produce better overall results.
However, when the discussion turns to the mental and physical wellness of employees, coaching rarely comes up.
Best practices for wellness are largely focused on what individual employees can do to sustain their physical and mental health. Search the blogosphere and you’ll find all kinds of suggestions about strategies to maintain work-life balance, eating healthily, exercising more and getting more sleep. Organizations try to pay attention to improving employee benefits, conducting engagement surveys and providing counselling around general physical and mental health and well-being.
However, little attention is paid to the root causes of an unsafe, unhealthy workplace. If organizations were to take a long, hard look at those causes, they would likely find that toxic leadership was among the chief reasons why people are unhealthy.
Both in broad employee surveys and detailed academic research, it has been clearly established that leadership culture can make or break workplace wellness. A good, competent, emotionally intelligent leader can make employees more productive, engaged and loyal to their employers.
A bad or toxic leader makes employees less productive, less engaged and more likely to leave for another job at another organization. It can also make them physically and mentally unwell. A review of research by the American Psychological Association found that toxic leaders can be linked to everything from high blood pressure to an increased presence of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem.
When we say “toxic,” what exactly are we saying?
Workplace psychologists have forged a list of qualities that describe a toxic leader: a lack of compassion and empathy; narcissistic and only concerned about their own success; bad at listening to the people they lead; and far too willing to use anger and abusive language to get their point across. Toxic leaders are not always bullies; some can torment employees simply by ignoring them and showing more attention to others.
While that kind of behaviour is a threat to mental health and wellbeing on its own, it can also prompt employees to treat each other the same way. That’s right – if you are abused or bullied by a boss, you are more likely to abuse or bully one of your colleagues.
Although it’s a complex condition, toxic leadership is, on many levels, cultivated by bad or insufficient training and development. Sure, there are always going to be leaders who ignore friendly advice on how to create a psychologically safe workplace. But far too often, off-the-shelf leadership development on its own – delivered haphazardly or infrequently – cannot remedy toxic behaviour.
How exactly can coaching build a leadership culture that creates a safer, healthier workplace? There are four key benefits, unique to coaching, which directly address toxic leadership.
- Coaching helps align leaders and leadership culture. Even in organizations that have lofty leadership culture goals, toxic leadership is allowed to thrive because no one directly confronts the behaviour. Performance reviews often focus only on bottom-line results, while ignoring how the leaders got those results. Coaching can ensure that leadership behaviour is aligned with leadership culture, and may also ensure that leaders are accountable for their behaviour.
- Coaching helps toxic leaders see how others may see them. Although they are individuals, many toxic leaders share the same blind spot – they cannot see how their behaviour affects the people they are leading. This lack of self-awareness can be particularly dangerous if the leaders, despite their abhorrent behaviour, are generating some positive results for their companies. Coaching can help toxic leaders face the truth about their behaviour and the impact that it’s having on others.
- Coaching allows leaders to learn and practice soft skills that defuse toxic tendencies. Far too often, new leaders are “thrown into the deep end of the pool” with little opportunity to learn and implement best practices. Coaching helps leaders learn soft skills like listening, empathy and compassion. However, it also creates an opportunity to practice and model those behaviours until they are muscle memories. This allows new skills and mindsets to be more fully embedded in a leader’s style and tone.
- Coaching helps struggling leaders “unlearn” bad practices acquired along the way. There is no getting away from the fact that we all pick up behaviours and mindsets acquired through the lived experience of being led by others. Many times, however, the habits and traits we picked up are actually quite negative and even destructive. Coaching not only helps leaders take the best and most constructive approach to leading people, but it can also create an opportunity to “unlearn” bad habits picked up along the way.
No matter the type or size of an organization, all companies want their employees to be safe and healthy when they’re at work. In most instances, your leaders will mean the difference between a fundamentally unsafe workplace, and one that is welcoming, productive and rewarding. In those instances where toxic leaders have been allowed to roam freely in your organization, coaching will be a huge part of the solution.