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Why You Need To Lead With Your Heart

If you think your brain makes you a great leader, you better check your head.

According to the Conference Board, job satisfaction in America has been on a steep and steady decline for an entire generation. The century-old research organization reported this summer that more than half of all US employees are unhappy in their jobs today—effectively an all-time low.

Recent Gallup studies not only validate that people feel worse about their work, bosses and organizations than ever before, they reveal a remarkable 71 percent of American workers are either not engaged in their jobs—or have become actively disengaged.

Clearly, all this discontent is bad for business. Gallup estimates that it's costing $300 billion in lost productivity every year.

Given all that's at stake, and with all the great business minds presumably attacking the crisis, we're left to wonder why we've yet to stem the tide? How is it that we haven't yet identified what it will take to re-inspire our nation's workforce?

Drawing upon recent scientific discoveries, it appears it's because the solution contradicts one of the most widely accepted and long-enduring paradigms in business. We now know that the path to engaging workers is through their hearts.

What We All Were Taught: "Keep The Heart And Emotions Out Of Leadership."

The idea of bringing the heart into workplace leadership widely is seen as being a soft and weak approach that inherently undermines productivity and profitability. Traditional leadership theory assures us the best managers are the brainiest and most analytical—intentionally insulated from emotions.

But according to research conducted by the Institute of HeartMath, organizations that will endure and even thrive will be those that reject flat-earth attitudes about heart and leadership, and accept that both feelings and emotions play an enormous role in driving employee (human) behavior.

If your desire is to be a leader who attracts and retains the best people all-the-while producing truly uncommon and sustainable performance, here are two things you must know about the power and influence of the human heart:

The heart is the primary driver of optimal human performance

HeartMath's research largely has been focused on the physiology of optimal human performance—what has to go on inside of a person's brain, body and nervous system to be able to think clearly, maintain composure, and perform to one's full potential.

According to Dr. Rollin McCraty, HeartMath's Director of Research, they've discovered the heart, as "an organ of perception and intelligence," is a huge part of the equation.

"We now know that the heart and the brain are in a constant two-way communication and that the heart sends more information to the brain than vice versa. The signals the heart sends affect the brain centers involved in our decision-making and in our ability to perceive. In other words, each beat reflects our current emotional state. If we're angry, irritated or frustrated, the heart beats out a very chaotic message. Conversely, more positive emotions create harmony in our nervous system and the heart rhythm pattern we have when we're in our most optimal state."

Coincidentally, a Towers Watson study recently showed that the greatest driver of employee engagement worldwide is whether or not people feel their managers and organizations have genuine concern for their well-being. Heartmath's corresponding insight: More caring leaders set off the neural machinery that produces optimal workplace performance."

Emotions drive performance

The prevailing belief in leadership is that emotions undermine good decision-making and other cognitive tasks and have no place in the workplace. But the new research is very clear that the repression of them greatly inhibits human functioning.

"While it's obvious that certain kinds of emotions drain our energy and thereby negatively affect our performance," McCraty says, "we now know it's our emotions that drive our biochemistry—not the other way around. Feelings and emotions, therefore, determine our level of engagement in life, what motivates us and what we care about."

Initial cynicism toward this information is something McCraty routinely experiences firsthand. The US military has contracted with HeartMath to teach its soon-to-be deployed personnel how to maintain psychological composure when enduring the most stressful wartime circumstances.

Here's how McCraty successfully persuades a room full of sceptical soldiers that feelings and emotions are the driving force in their lives:

"Some of you joined the military for the paycheck, but I'll bet it's not the majority of you. I'll bet you're here because you care about the country and its way of life, right? Raise your hands."

All hands go up.

"And you have the courage to stand up and do something about it."

Everyone nods their heads.

"You have the integrity and dignity to stand up for America."

McCraty then hammers home the point: "Are these not emotions?"

"Yes, they're the strongest emotions we have. Courage gives you the power to do things others wouldn't or couldn't. Dignity is doing the right thing when no one is looking—that kind of integrity. These are all the emotions that really motivate us and determine what we care about in life…why we choose to do the things we do in life."

The bottom line

It's long been believed that a job and a paycheck was sufficient motivation for workers to perform. But pay in all of its manifestations now ranks no higher than fifth in importance globally as the reason why people excel in their jobs.

While the idea of managing people with greater care may strike some as intrinsically wimpy, the Conference Board's ongoing employee engagement research has proved that workplace leadership cannot succeed without it.

What matters most to people is how they are made to feel by the organizations that employ them, and by the bosses who manage them. So, demonstrate to your employees that they're authentically valued. Provide them with opportunities to grow and to contribute at a higher level. Appreciate their work. Make people feel they matter. Do all these things and more—knowing it's rarely an appeal to our minds that inspires any of our greatest achievements.

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century. Reach him on Twitter @markccrowley or via his website.

[Image: Flickr user Michael]

Add New Comment


  • Janet Blaha

    Excellent article! I especially like the last paragraph as ways leaders can change their style in order for employees to feel valued and appreciated. This will increase their confidence and allow them to be more engaged with their work. This will increase the morale within the organization and minimize turn over as well.

  • Maria Cartagena

    This was a very interesting read. It's not always necessarily about how much money you make if you feel unsatisfied in the workplace. There is no price tag for a simple thank you. It goes a long way. Simple gestures of appreciation for a job well done can motivate masses. Leadership take note.

  • Maria Cartagena

    This was a very interesting read. It's not always necessarily about how much money you make if you feel unsatisfied in the workplace. There is no price tag for a simple thank you. It goes a long way. Simple gestures of appreciation for a job well done can motivate masses. Leadership take note.

  • Christopher Frawley

    Outstanding.  People forget that there is no business without care.  Customers have to care about your product and your message enough to buy.  Employees have to care about the jobs they do.  Managers have to care about how things are running.  Leaders have to care about everything.  There is no care without heart.  It all has to start with the "giving a damn" investment.  Great piece.

  • Astound Commerce

    We did an internal study on the subject not long ago and found out that even though pay still is the biggest motivator in reaching higher level of professional proficiency things like emotional comfort and professional satisfaction are just as important. So though leadership might just as well be "cordial". 

  • Mark C. Crowley

    It's quite encouraging that there are organizations today who are already well beyond "cordial" in their thinking (check out orgs like SAS, Wegman's Foods, Four Seasons Hotels and Google).  This gives me great hope that business can and will do even better.  

    Pay is essential to people and the more of it the better for most of us.  But true engagement can't be fully achieved unless people are made to feel that they matter and the work they do (regardless of what it is) is valued by their firm and its management.  It takes a big shift in thinking, but the earnings of the early adapters, I believe, will force others to adapt.  It's happening.

  • Suzanne

    I must have learned a different kind of leadership because I don't recall "Keep The Heart And Emotions Out Of Leadership." And my early training in leadership was as an Engineering Officer in the Canadian Forces. What I recall being of greatest concern from the leaders' perspectives was team morale and cohesion. That's all about bonding as people  - and that places heart right at the center of it all. "look after your men (now men and women) and they'll look after you. I sought out leaders with powerful charisma, so I could learn their leadership secrets. (Today we call that mentoring)The single most important element of leadership in my experience (after being able to take critical decisions and put an intelligent plan together - nobody will follow somebody going in circles) is respect. To be a leader you need to be respected. Earning respect starts with giving it. Respect for the mission - belief in the purpose of the task at hand, the BIG picture is also very important. It's all about heart!

  • Cedricj

    Any dualistic view of persons like the heart/mind or work/life distinction leads to a violation of what it means to be human. Any when that happens motivation goes down and dissatisfaction goes up.

    At the end of the day it is not an either/or distinction but a both/and integration.

    Important posting.
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others