TIME psychology

What Can You Learn From the Toughest Leadership Job on Earth?

ANTARCTICA-BRAZIL-NAVY
Brazilian navy captain Sergio Lucas (R) looks on aboard the Brazilian Navy's Oceanographic Ship Ary Rongel as it goes through the Beagle Channel on its way to Antarctica on March 2, 2014. VANDERLEI ALMEIDA—AFP/Getty Images

Imagine you’re heading up a team stationed in Antarctica. And your relationship with some of the crew members goes sour.

There’s nobody else to enforce your authority. In fact, there’s no one for hundreds — if not thousands — of miles.

And you can’t fire anyone. Everyone has a critical role. How do you even punish them?

How can you take things away in a situation where everyone only has the minimum amenities to begin with?

And there’s no one to get much advice or counsel from.

Do you take a stereotypical military perspective and crack the whip? Apply the pirate model and have someone walk the plank?

Research has been done on the subject — and the tough guy stuff wasn’t effective.

What worked? Being democratic and listening. In the harshest conditions you need the softest touch.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

During the early 1960s, the Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (now the Naval Health Research Center) conducted a series of studies concerning leadership at small Antarctic stations. In that research program, Nelson (1962) found that esteemed leaders tended to possess a relatively democratic leadership orientation and a leadership style characterized by greater participation in activities than traditional for a military organization. Further, the esteemed leaders developed individual relationships with each of their crew members and reportedly sought the opinions of individual crew members about issues directly concerning them.

Now even the extraordinary leaders didn’t just play mom toward the team.

Good leaders were still aggressive, industrious and emotionally disciplined — but they were focused on group harmony.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

Popular leaders tended to be more self-confident and alert, but they differed most from unpopular leaders by exhibiting greater emotional control and adaptability and maintaining harmony within the group. The latter trait again emphasizes the motivational component of effective leadership; that is, the esteemed leader takes the time to speak personally with crew members and do whatever is necessary to preserve group solidarity. Many ineffectual leaders probably know that they should make these efforts, but they refrain because of insufficient motivation.

Crew members didn’t expect a leader to be a superman who had all the answers — in fact, that was a bad sign.

When there was a technical problem they wanted the expert in that area to make the decision.

They wanted policy decisions to be made by the leader — but only after input from the group.

And the only time they really wanted a take-charge, decisive dictator was in times of crisis.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

In general, Nelson found that a specific leader’s status and esteem in a small Antarctic group were determined by the manner in which three types of decisions were made. First, crew members expected technical or task specific decisions to be based on consultations with the appropriate specialists and individuals involved. Second, crew members expected decisions about general or routine station policy matters that would affect all personnel, such as scheduling of housekeeping and recreational activities, to be made by the leader following consultation with the entire group. Third, crew members expected leaders to make decisions regarding emergency matters as quickly and autocratically as necessary under the circumstances.

So in the toughest place in the world, tough leadership didn’t work. It was those who listened and collaborated who thrived.

 

So What?

You don’t lead a group in the Antarctic, you say? I think we all do now.

The autocratic, military style doesn’t work in the modern office either.

What’s most people’s biggest problem in the workplace? Hands down — their boss.

Via Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management

Researchers have been studying organizational climate for more than 50 years and routinely find “that 60% to 75% of the employees in any organization — no matter when or where the survey was completed and no matter what occupational group was involved — report that the worst or most stressful aspect of their job is their immediate supervisor.”

And bad employee-boss relationships have negative effects on the whole company.

People who hate their boss take more sick days, do less work and are more likely to quit.

Via Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over–and Collaboration Is In:

There’s a growing body of research indicating that bad bosses hamper productivity, which results in smaller profits and lost business. University of Florida researchers found that people who work for abusive bosses are more likely to arrive late, do less work, and take more sick days even though they may be physically fine… this kind of employee-manager abusive relationship resulted in a workforce that “experienced more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed mood and mistrust.” These workers were also less likely to take on additional tasks, such as working longer or on weekends, and were generally less satisfied with their jobs. Also,employees were more likely to leave if they were involved in an abusive relationship than if they were dissatisfied with their pay — proving the old maxim that people quit bosses, not companies.

Even extraordinary leaders must learn the best ways to fight their number one enemy: hubris.

The military style dictator attitude won’t fly anymore. In fact, that style probably never even worked that well in the military.

Research shows the best Navy leaders have been supportive, not harsh.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

This isn’t only true in corporate settings. In environments thought to be even more stoic than corporate America—like the military—leaders who openly express their positivity get the most out of their teams. In the U.S. Navy, researchers found, annual prizes for efficiency and preparedness are far more frequently awarded to squadrons whose commanding officers are openly encouraging. On the other hand, the squadrons receiving the lowest marks in performance are generally led by commanders with a negative, controlling, and aloof demeanor. Even in an environment where one would think the harsh “military taskmaster” style of leadership would be most effective, positivity wins out.

So even the toughest guys know that being tough isn’t always what gets results.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

Checklist: Are you doing these five things to be more effective at work?

What 5 insights can you learn from the best book on management ever?

How To Go from “Good Manager” To “Great Leader”

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser