Although the economy may be showing signs of recovery, senior leaders are just beginning to feel some of the repercussions of the economic downturn, according to a new study from the University of Michigan Business School and eePulse Inc., which delivers Web-based leadership tools for change management and continuous improvement. While leaders are feeling a growing confidence in the economic situation, they are feeling less confident in themselves, said Dr. Theresa Welbourne, president and CEO of eePulse and also an adjunct professor in executive education at the University of Michigan Business School. Stress on executives has increased dramatically, and Welbourne said that this stress is finally leading to leaders doubting their abilities.
The majority of the 911 executive leaders surveyed, 61 percent of whom are C- or VP-level executives, said they are feeling less productive than usual and are de-energized at work. The results of the study were reported in the January 2004 Leadership Pulse, a research project conducted by Welbourne. Results of the study suggest that stress levels may be at an all-time high for corporate leaders.
“People really seem beat up from the last couple of years. The economy’s down, they’ve been working really hard, they’ve been trying, and I think things are coming back a little bit, but not as fast as they want,” said Welbourne. “It’s almost like the economy coming back is putting extra pressure on executives because now everybody is expecting you to turn things around every night, and they just can’t.”
Senior leaders were asked to rate their personal levels of energy at work and also the level at which they felt most productive. No matter how the data were cut—by job level, performance level, occupation, size of firm, etc.—the respondents overwhelmingly said that their current energy levels are lower than their optimum or most productive energy levels. For example, even at very high-performing firms, executives rated their optimum, most productive energy level as 8.36 (with 1 representing no energy, 8 representing very high energy, and 10 representing too much energy or burnout). The average current energy level for these same executives is 7.21.
The overall magnitude of executives who feel de-energized and less productive, is the most alarming result of the study, according to Welbourne. “Here’s 911 executives who basically are all reporting what we call being ‘below their zone,’” she said. In her seven years of performing this research, she said she has never seen executives reach this level. In past surveys, executives have reported that they are working at energy levels that are higher than where they are most productive.
To increase understanding of the findings, respondents were also asked to report the kinds of things that made them feel energized in a positive way at work as well as those things that drive their energy either too low or too high. The study found that things like sleep, exercise and health levels have a profound impact on leaders. Leaders felt de-energized by personal problems, like death in families, illness and alcohol, as well as by problems at work like negativism, dishonesty, lack of sales and dysfunctional leadership. Their energy levels were driven to positive levels by things like clarity of vision, adequate planning, execution followed by success and reduced barriers to performance through minimizing meetings and bureaucracy. The study also shows that leaders have similar positive reactions to rank-and-file employees to challenging work, positive feedback and being given adequate time to get work done.
Welbourne said that a lot of organizations are working on employee engagement. “My pitch is you can’t have engaged employees without engaged managers,” she said. “If the managers aren’t doing well, they’re going to pass that on, and it will affect the rest of the organization through the employees. And who knows how it’s affecting the customers. My call to action is, ‘Hey, chief learning officers, we really do need to be in there helping those people.’”
The key to helping leaders recover their lost energy and productivity, Welbourne said, is to help them set priorities and provide positive feedback. “A lot of times for executives, there’s so much guilt coming from all these directions, they don’t take the time out to establish priorities and really work on things that only they can do,” she explained. “I’m seeing the same thing with employees. So I think that once the executives understand how to do that, it can also help their employees too.”
How are your leaders doing? Are they energized and productive? De-energized or burnt out? Being aware is the first step you can take toward making things better, which will help drive the productivity of your enterprise into the future.
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