Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions

Leaders have an incredible opportunity to influence and strengthen employee engagement. Recognizing that engagement ultimately impacts productivity and organizational performance, you have the power to affirm engagement as a strategic priority, mobilize your network of leaders, and hold them accountable for embedding proven engagement practices. 

Whether you are a corporate, regional, or facility leader, you have the power to shape an engaging environment in your organization.

Yet all too often, a leader’s behaviors end up alienating versus engaging employees. Consider this statement (an actual quote) from a nursing assistant warning her co-worker that they had visitors from their corporate office.

“The suits are here. I guess the higher-ups decided to leave their ivory tower to check up on us.”

You could hear the cynicism and mistrust dripping from her voice.

Why might employees feel cynical and suspicious of people in higher level roles? According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 63% of employees don’t trust their leaders. When people experience their leaders as aloof, disingenuous, arrogant or patronizing, it’s pretty clear why they might feel resentful.

Now you may be thinking, “That’s not me! I care about my employees!” Perhaps, but guess what? New research tells us that having positional power can lead to behaviors that are inauthentic and ego-laden.

Advances in neuroscience tell us that when power goes to your head, it may shut out your heart. Power actually changes how your brain functions. When people feel power over others, it diminishes feelings of empathy. It makes it hard to feel and understand what other people feel and understand. And the more powerful you become, the greater chance for less empathy. When we unconsciously become absorbed in our own self-worth, our leadership capabilities get hijacked. 

Thus, people in positions of power may not even realize that they appear unfeeling and disconnected from the people they lead, simply due to their mindset.

This is not just a CEO or executive leader affliction. There are several triggers that can activate this brain phenomena, including things like getting a raise, getting a promotion, adding more direct reports, or moving into a bigger office. These situations can produce a “better than” mindset that separates us from the connections that make us human. When we view ourselves in relation to our employees from this elevated position, the underlying (perhaps subconscious) assumptions are, I have more than you, I know more than you, and I am more than you. Spurred by ego, this mindset leads to inauthentic leadership.

So how can you mitigate this phenomena?

Christopher Hannegan, author of the Edelman study, commented on the relationship that employees want to have with senior leaders. “Our study shows employees want to really understand who their CEOs are at a personal level, including the values that drive them. Employees want to know their CEOs as people.” 

Of note, 80% of employees said they wanted to better understand a CEO’s personal values,  73% wanted to know about obstacles the CEO has overcome, and 68% said they wanted to hear about a CEO’s personal success story.

Authentic leaders share who they are as a real person.

I recently attended a senior care leadership conference in which the keynote speaker was researcher and author James Kane, an expert on the topic of loyalty, speaking about what it means to be loyal and what organizations and individuals need to do to achieve it.

In the first few minutes of his presentation, Kane shared all kinds of personal information about himself. He spoke of his family, favorite sports teams, movies, and authors to name a few. In about two minutes, I knew a lot about Mr. Kane and recognized some things we had in common. He had a motive for sharing so many aspects of who he is and what’s important to him. To increase loyalty:

“Let people know what you care about and allow them to discover the similarities you may share with them, whether it is interests, hobbies, favorite products, artists, foods, sports teams, places you have been, or places you hope to visit one day.”

Why? Because our brain makes the decision to trust other people based on whether or not that person is “like me”. Whenever we meet a new person, our brain automatically makes a friend or foe distinction. If the new person is perceived as having similarities, the door to trust is opened. If the new person is perceived as having nothing in common, a different neural pathway triggers uncomfortable warning signals that lead to mistrust.   

Knowing there may be a tendency to be less authentic when you are in a position of power, you can take steps to consciously show up as an authentic leader who cares and understands deeply what others think and feel. Share who you are and what’s important to you. Similarities in interests, values and priorities create a “like me” connection. Demonstrate openness, genuineness and empathy. Make it tangible that you see what people feel and validate those feelings.

Now, more than ever, senior care organizations need leaders who continually build their capacity for authentic leadership, built on compassion, empathy and a willingness to be vulnerable. It takes a conscious effort to override the influence that status, rank and authority have on your leadership presence.

Or as author Brene Brown writes, “When leaders choose self-protection over transparency, when money and metrics are more valued than relationships and values, and when our self-worth is attached to what we produce, learning and work become dehumanized.  People disengage and turn away from the very things the world needs: their talent, their ideas, and their passion.”

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.