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How a ‘selfless leader’ can poison their company’s culture

A leader who feels ashamed of taking time for themselves is doing their workers, and the business, no favors.

How a ‘selfless leader’ can poison their company’s culture
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Bryan, the director of family medicine at a progressive health system, heard me speak at a conference about the intersection of clinician and patient self-care and asked me to help his team. After the training, Bryan caught my eye and pulled me aside.

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“I have a confession,” he said quietly, looking around to make sure no one could hear. Despite being in a profession centered on better health, despite his organization having invested in a gym for everyone to use, and despite being the leader of the clinic, he did not feel comfortable regularly working out in the gym.

“Why not?” I asked, confused. Bryan confided that his never-ending and ever-growing list of things he needed to do for work always felt more important than exercising.

Bryan then confessed that at the few times when he did choose to go to the gym during lunchtime, he tried to hide behind the pillars that lined the hallway to the gym so no one would see that he had stopped working to work out.

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You may find this astounding, as I did, or you may easily relate to his plight. Regardless of how you feel, however, the potential impact of Bryan’s actions might still surprise you: Research suggests that the consequences of leaders publicly sacrificing their own self-care needs to accommodate their work needs not only hurts their own health, it has a negative effect on employees and even on the health of the organization.

One study that investigated the impact of organizational leaders’ sleep behavior and messaging on employees highlights just what is at stake. The 2020 study of nearly 1,000 participants across different working environments provides a look into leader and employee sleep.

Leaders’ sleep was assessed with items like “My supervisor talks about getting by with very little sleep” and “My supervisor sends out messages at times when most other people with his/her schedule would be asleep.” The findings? When leaders publicly devalue their own sleep, their employees report worse sleep outcomes.

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But this study illuminated another negative, and somewhat surprising, finding: Leaders who devalued their sleep, compared to leaders who didn’t, rated their subordinates as less likely to act in ethical ways!

It could be that tired leaders see their employees through a less tolerant lens or that employees who don’t get enough sleep do make poor choices. Or it may be that leaders who publicly devalue their own sleep are ostensibly signaling to their employees that loyalty to the organizational culture requires that they, too, should sacrifice sleep for work.

Whether out of resentment, payback, or something else, this research suggests that leaders’ public display of devaluing healthy choices like sleep goes beyond simply being a leader’s personal preference and cultural norm to a real employee hazard and organizational liability.

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We can’t know whether anyone else actually saw Bryan hiding behind the pillars in his workout attire, and if they did, whether they interpreted that confusing sight as an explicit signal that, at their clinic, taking time to exercise is really a no-no, despite the new gym. Regardless, I’d wager that staff members are fully aware that Bryan is singularly focused on work and that they can’t remember ever seeing him at the gym. I’d also wager that many of them also feel guilty about fitting in their own workouts.

The notion that tending to our own self-care is simultaneously good for others couldn’t have become more clear than during the pandemic. New York Times “Well” columnist Tara Parker Pope put this wisdom into our current day: “The pandemic taught us that when you take care of yourself, you’re also taking care of your family, friends, and community.”

Real self-care is anything but selfish. This truism applies to everyone—whether we’re talking about clients, patients, employees, leaders, or ourselves.

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Excerpted from The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise, by Michelle Segar. Hachette Go, April 2022.

Michelle Segar, PhD, is an award-winning lifestyle coach and sustainable behavior change researcher at the University of Michigan. She is the author of  The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise.

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