Confidential Support for Effective Leaders

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By Kathryn Bekavac, On Axis Psychology and Wellbeing

Effective leaders
People often aspire to be leaders because they want to commit to excellence, make a difference and deliver results. When in positions of leadership, leaders quickly realise that they have many people relying on them. They are required to understand, relate to and be sensitive to staff and colleagues. This relational aspect known as emotional intelligence is an important foundation for building staff capability, developing accountability and sustaining direction. Leaders often respond to other competing priorities such as dealing with pressing administrative, political and community demands. At this time of rapid change and increased complexity, those in leadership positions are called to respond to a range of challenges and opportunities. To respond effectively to change and complexity, leaders need support and time to maintain their own resilience and sophisticated interpersonal skills.

Leadership theory has involved defining authentic, transformational and visionary leadership (Bass & Riggio, 2008). Transformational leaders are described as those who inspire, engage and challenge the staff they lead by seeking to understand each staff member and by building the leadership capability of each staff member. This type of effective leader can have a positive effect on staff performance, engagement and wellbeing. Qualities of effective leaders such as giving positive feedback, leading by example, building collaborative teams and helping staff feel like they are contributing toward team and strategic goals requires time, energy and balance. As well as the positive developmental work of staff and direction, those in leadership positions also manage developmental challenges. For example, there are problematic staff issues to be managed, relationship dynamics to be negotiated, personal difficulties to be supported, conflicts between staff to be resolved and critical incidents to be contained. While there is an increasing emphasis on empathetic leadership for staff, at what point can an effective leader be the recipient of professional support and empathy?

Giving and receiving empathy as an effective leader
Empathy is the ability to understand and share another’s feelings. It is a key aspect of emotional intelligence (Goleman et al, 2002) and an essential capability for leaders. According to Daniel Goleman and his colleagues, emotional intelligence comprises self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to understand their own emotions with realistic self-assessment. Self-management refers to the leader’s ability to regulate emotions, demonstrate transparency through integrity, and to achieve and demonstrate optimism (Goleman et al, 2002). Social awareness relates to the leader’s capability to demonstrate empathy, organizational awareness and service orientation for staff. Relationship management refers to transformational leadership capabilities of working with staff to create a vision to guide change and improvement through inspiration. When a leader has high emotional intelligence, their staff are more likely to experience relational trust and safety.

While effective leaders demonstrate empathy for their staff, they also need to receive empathy from their colleagues and line managers. The process of change and improvement can be a challenging time for staff as well as leaders. Leaders have the complexity of dealing with staff who may be upset, angry and perhaps in some circumstances, unsafe. At times there is a perception that leaders have more resilience than their staff and can therefore absorb more stress. However, the need for professional support, such as peer networks and confidential psychological check-in processes for leaders, has been identified as important for the ongoing development and resilience of effective leaders (Sutcher, Podolsky & Espinoza, 2017).

Confidential psychological support for effective leaders
Leaders can be psychologically affected in different ways through change, critical incident containment and ongoing prolonged stress. These may include lack of sleep and fatigue due to worry, feelings of guilt when hearing of the impacts of their decisions on people’s personal situations, physical responses such as headaches, stiff shoulders and necks and some disengagement from the work environment. Confidential psychological support or professional supervision from an experienced psychologist, external to the organisation, can offer leaders a safe space to reflect and recalibrate. This confidential process provides leaders an alternative contact point to discuss and problem solve complex work relationships and situations, difficult performance conversations, the management of conflicts, support for staff through change, recovery and resilience for people during and after and critical incidents, and other leadership concerns. On Axis Psychology and Wellbeing we provide confidential psychological support and professional supervision for leaders.

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Bass, B. M. & Riggio, R. E. (2008). Transformational leadership. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School.

Sutcher, L., Podolsky, A., & Espinoza, D. (2017). Supporting principals’ learning: Key features of effective programs. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

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Mental health and wellbeing: Feeling good and living well

By Kathryn Bekavac
On Axis: Psychology and Wellbeing

Mental health and wellbeing are frequently used terms in books, on websites and even in the Australian curriculum. The concepts of mental health and wellbeing have applications across a broad range of disciplines. Different definitions can be found in relation to health, education, psychology and philosophy, to name just a few. Each discipline highlights the importance of positive mental health and wellbeing for each person and for the community. To implement strategies to protect and enhance mental health and wellbeing, it is helpful to develop an understanding of these concepts. The following questions will be addressed. What is mental health and what is wellbeing? How do mental health and wellbeing relate to each other? How do they contribute to feeling good and living well?

Mental health will be considered first. Everyone has a state of mental health, just as everyone has a state of physical health. Each person’s mental health can fluctuate over time in response to life events, environmental conditions and social relationships. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines positive mental health for adults and children. An adult with positive mental health knows their own abilities, copes with the normal stresses of life, works productively and fruitfully, and contributes to their community. A child with positive mental health has a positive sense of identity, manages their thoughts and emotions, builds social relationships, engages with learning, and will be able to participate actively in their community. Overall, positive mental health has been linked to improved quality of life, better physical health, increased education attainment and positive social relationships

Mental health difficulty refers to the presence of psychological symptoms that affect thoughts, feelings or behaviour. Mental health difficulties may include depression, anxiety or stress. While everyone experiences sadness from time to time, or worries unnecessarily about their performance, serious symptoms are associated with mental health difficulties and negatively impact relationships and everyday living. Short term stress can be productive, providing the adrenalin a person needs to perform well. However, ongoing high levels of stress can cause a person to become overwhelmed and disorganized.

Wellbeing will now be considered in more detail. In addition to positive emotions, wellbeing is achieved through the development and satisfaction of basic human needs for autonomy, competence and social relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). A person experiences autonomy when their actions, tasks and goals are self-chosen, rather than imposed or controlled by others. A person experiences competence when they can effectively manage the interactions, tasks and challenges in their daily lives while achieving goals. Finally, a person experiences social relatedness when they trust, rely on, value and care for others and experience others trusting, relying on, valuing and caring for them. For optimal wellbeing, all three needs require fulfillment in a balanced way. Thus, to feel good and live well, Ryan and Deci recommend setting and attaining goals that satisfy the needs for autonomy, competence and social relatedness.

Wellbeing is complex in that if someone is not experiencing mental health difficulties, this doesn’t necessarily mean their wellbeing is flourishing. Similarly, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a mental health difficulty while feeling well in many aspects of life. Thus, wellbeing is more than just the absence of mental health difficulties and is a combination of feeling good and functioning well (Huppert & Johnston, 2010). It enables strong social connections, resilience, a sense of purpose, skills for living and working, success in education and control to manage a quality life.

There are a range of ways to seek education about mental health and wellbeing. Once awareness and understanding has been developed, it is important for each person to develop a wellbeing plan to enhance mental health and apply their learnings in their unique situations. One of the ways that may suit is to develop a wellbeing plan in partnership with a psychologist to implement evidence based practical strategies and tools. These may include strategies for stress management, exercise, positive relationships and creativity to empower themselves and others. A trusted psychologist can also form part of the team to support a person with managing a mental health difficulty and reducing distress. Remember that someone can have optimal wellbeing with a mental health difficulty and that someone else can have poor wellbeing without a mental health difficulty. Mental health and wellbeing both need to be managed to feel good and live a quality life.

Huppert, F.A., & Johnson, D.M. (2010). A controlled trial of mindfulness training in schools: The importance of practice for an impact on well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology. 5, 264-274.

Ryan, R.M., Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 55, 68-78.

World Health Organisation. (2014). Mental Health: Strengthening our response.

The meaning of “On Axis”

Our passions can provide metaphors for the way we live our lives. For example, the Argentine Tango dance provides metaphors for our lives on and off the dance floor, and the search for balance within.

One of the most powerful searches in dancing Argentine Tango is the search for being on axis. Being on axis means using the energy of the floor to find your own balance in your body, so no matter what you are doing, whether pivoting, turning, or walking, you are in control of your own movement. It can take time and practice to find your axis, and when you do, being on axis feels powerful and smooth, flexible and balanced, connected and independent.