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Why Putting People First Helps Leaders Achieve Their Goals

illustration of many people working together to move a mountain

For decades, organizations have struggled with a conundrum: For a company to succeed, employees need to feel like their leaders care about them. But the moment you put someone in a position of leadership, research shows, they begin focusing less on people and more on big-picture goals. Although power doesn’t always corrupt, it does make leaders start to care less about the people beneath them in the hierarchy.

It’s no coincidence that the world’s most successful CEOs — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs — aren’t exactly known for their warmth toward their employees. And if the current spate of resignations is any indication, people managers at other levels aren’t doing much better.

This cold, uncompromising, mission-above-all style of leadership may have been adequate in the past, at a time when organizations had all the power and employees felt lucky just to have a job. But today that balance has shifted. Competition to attract and retain talent is fiercer than it’s ever been. For organizations to succeed in today’s world, they need to make employees feel like human beings — not faceless, disposable cogs in a machine that exist solely to generate revenue.

People, power, and the brain

If you’re a CEO being judged primarily on whether your company hits its revenue targets, you’re likely to focus narrowly on what you need to do to achieve that goal. Since you’re responsible for outcomes that involve getting people to do what you need them to do, you come to see the people around you as tools to help you reach your goals. There’s an inherent tension between focusing on people and focusing on goal pursuit — and power pushes you toward the latter.

This happens not just because leaders bear greater responsibility for achieving goals that are important to the business, but also because power literally changes the way you think. That’s why you can’t just tell leaders to focus more on people and hope for the best. “It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic,” explains Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Louise Chester in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to.”

Studies show that the feeling of power heightens activity in a brain region called the Behavioral Approach System (BAS), a dopamine-regulated network that exists to help us pursue our goals. When this network is activated, people reduce their attention to things that inhibit them from doing what they need to do — competing influences like rules, norms, and the awareness of how their behavior might impact other people.

Even more dangerously, feelings of power can increase people’s bias — say, when assessing job candidates. Paying less attention to people necessarily means being less attentive to stereotype-defying information, and studies show that people with more power are more biased by negative stereotypes about people’s abilities and social skills based solely on their demographic attributes.

All this creates a quandary for organizations. Leadership positions confer power as a matter of course, but once people have that power, they make their employees feel disposable. So what can organizations do to ensure that leaders focus on people at a time when doing so is mission-critical?

1. Set people-focused goals

Fortunately, powerful people aren’t actually incapable of considering the perspectives of others. In fact, studies show that when a goal requires them to pay close attention to individuals, powerful people actually do so more effectively than less powerful people.

The solution, then, is to align goal focus and people focus by setting people-focused goals. One study of remote work found that when managers were responsible for making employees feel engaged and included, instead of productive and efficient, they were actually more likely than people without power to focus on people.

The key is to make focusing on people an explicit part of a manager’s role and performance. When leaders are made responsible and accountable for the welfare and development of employees, it creates “prosocial goals” — goals that are about the welfare of others. And when that happens, there’s no longer a tension between goal focus and people focus. Instead, focusing on people becomes the very thing the leader needs to do to reach their goals.

2. Seek perspectives

To successfully focus on people, leaders need to create quality connections. They need to understand the needs, feelings, and concerns of employees. Conventional wisdom holds that empathy requires being able to sense other people’s emotions based just on body language and other cues — something not every leader feels confident doing. A better approach is for leaders to actually ask about employees’ feelings, thoughts, and needs — a technique known as “perspective getting.”

3. Be more intentional about sending positive signals

Focusing on people means making employees feel cared for. Before the pandemic, when managers and employees largely worked together in person, that caring was expressed organically — in your voice, your facial expressions, and the conversations you’d have around the conference table or the water cooler.

But now that hybrid work and video calls are the norm, social signals no longer come through as naturally and effortlessly. Interacting through digital platforms can impede relatedness since the exchange of information isn’t as rich as it is in person. In the absence of in-person social cues, and at a time when employees are likely already feeling anxious, even neutral signals can be interpreted as threatening.

Our research has found that virtual interactions can actually be better for learning than in-person ones when they’re done right. The key is to communicate with intention — using words to explicitly let employees know you value their contributions and hold them in high regard. By being more intentional about sending positive signals, you can ensure that your intent matches your impact, and employees feel cared about.

At a time when power has shifted from organizations to people, it’s critical to treat employees like human beings. Focusing on people and building a culture of true caring is the first step in restoring a sense of connection to a disconnected world.

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