I’m not an alien, I’m just a senior exec

Posted 17 February 2012 by

For anyone who’s ever thought of their boss as a “cold fish” who doesn’t appear to experience any emotions, our new research may be a revelation.

OPP’s 2011 16PF study showed that senior executives are more likely to be cool, calm and collected than other managers, and seem as if they don’t let fluffy things like feelings get in the way of their naked ambition and drive to influence. But this masks the truth.

In fact, the research revealed that senior executives report the highest level of emotional investment in their work, but that they also experience the lowest levels of stress across the managerial workforce. This leads to the hypothesis that senior executives have a distinctive personality profile that enables them to cope more effectively with a highly demanding job, and can give the impression that they are emotionally unflappable.

What differentiates senior managers from others is their high degree of control over their work environments. This allows them to be more resilient to seemingly nightmarish workloads, to balance strategy with people management, and to make difficult decisions in their job. Amongst all of this, they also somehow manage to ensure a degree of work-life balance.

This is supported by the information about personality within OPP’s research. The typical personality profile of a senior executive is an ‘independent’, ‘dominant’ and ‘socially confident’ individual who is ‘open to change’ and ‘innovation’, but who is less ‘apprehensive’ and less ‘sensitive’ than the general population. This suggests that senior executives are more effective at managing their emotions (rather than repressing or not having them at all) – allowing them more emotional space to focus on the major strategic issues. This is particularly the case when they are making difficult, people-related decisions, where they tend to adopt a detached and impersonal style. Crucially, the research suggests that this is a reaction to the demands of the job rather than innate cold-fishiness. If they are able to master this style, senior executives report more job satisfaction and enjoyment from their work, and are less likely to think about quitting than middle or line managers.

In fact, extensive research (including some from our very own Dr Penny Moyle, CEO) also shows that demanding jobs are less likely to take their toll on a person when they have strong networks of people to support them. The relationship a senior manager has with their boss has the greatest impact on their ability to cope with stress and avoid burnout. If a business leader is equipped with self-awareness and an understanding of others, they are able to be genuinely supportive of their senior managers, who are more likely to be able to rise to the challenges required.

The next most powerful source of social support for leaders at the top is from their senior-management teammates. Teambuilding, particularly if it has a focus on understanding how team members will each find different things stressful and how different people react to stress, can help build a social support network that will enable all team members to perform at their peak, without suffering stress and burnout.

So when you see a high-powered, dominant person relishing just how in charge they are, just remember they don’t necessarily possess special powers of cold logic, or a Vulcan imperviousness to emotion. They probably do have distinct personality traits from other types of employee, but it is also highly likely that they benefit from an understanding network of trusted colleagues, and a boss who supports and empowers them.

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