number six

Using the “High Six” to Improve Leadership Skills

Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Psychologists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnosing mental and personality disorders. This classification and diagnostic tool identifies issues that disrupt people’s ability to maintain relationships, achieve goals, and experience fulfillment.

Renowned psychologist Martin Seligman is one of the pioneers of Positive Psychology which essentially flips the coin and examines behaviors and characteristics of flourishing. He and University of Michigan psychologist, Chris Peterson, set out to find these characteristics across numerous cultures and throughout different periods of history. They spoke with historians, sociologists, economists, and philosophers and identified the “high six” virtues and behaviors that contribute to happiness and success. These factors are temperance, wisdom, justice, humanity, transcendence, and courage.

These “high six” characteristics impact organizational leadership. Leaders who cultivate these virtues will be more compassionate and effective.
1. Temperance: Leaders who exhibit self-control and steadiness during times of stress foster a calm, less anxious environment for employees. They view potential threats as challenges and puzzles to be solved. These leaders thrive under pressure and set the tone for proactive, rationale, and objective solutions instead of fear-based, impulsive, and emotion-laden reactions.
2. Wisdom: Daniel Khanemen details System 1 (fast, intuitive) vs. System 2 (slow, reflective) cognitive processing. Effective leaders demonstrate wisdom by slowing down and relying more on System 2 thinking to make important organizational decisions. Ineffective leaders default too quickly to System 1 thinking which is more prone to faulty heuristics, cognitive biases, and attribution errors. Wise leaders also encourage divergent thinking in others and welcome dissenting opinions instead of stifling them.
3. Justice: Strong leaders treat employees fairly. This includes setting clear objectives, providing open and honest feedback, and regularly recognizing pro-social behaviors. Leaders that value and exhibit justice are quick to respond to employee suggestions and concerns and generally hold people accountable using positive means instead of fear-based tactics and punishment.
4. Humanity: Great leaders regularly demonstrate actively caring for others and demonstrate high emotional intelligence. These empathic leaders promote effective listening skills, cooperation, collaboration, and mentoring. They value people beyond immediate business demands.
5. Transcendence: Abraham Maslow is famous for his hierarchy which had “self-actualization” as the highest level of human experience. Before his death, he amended this and proclaimed “self-transcendence” (i.e., helping others) is the highest level. Effective leaders promote the growth and success of direct reports. They increase trust by maintaining an “outward perspective” instead of just focusing on their own self-interests. This happens when people feel truly valued and appreciated. Interestingly, helping others boosts the release of oxytocin in the brain which elevates mood. In other words, helping others actually makes us feel good.
6. Courage: Courageous leaders do what’s right even when it’s uncomfortable or potentially threatening to their own interests. Leaders promote psychological safety and a learning culture for everyone to flourish. They also consistently innovate, deal with conflicts directly, speak up when problems arise, and protect their employees.

Empirical Support for the High Six
• Employees are two times more likely to be committed to organizational changes when the reasons behind such changes are thoroughly explained and communicated (Dvorak, 2007)
• Respectful treatment of employees at all levels was rated as the top contributor to job satisfaction. Ninety-five percent of employees report respectful treatment is important. (SHRM, 2016).
• About half (55%) of a company’s ability to learn from failures can be explained by whether or not employees feel psychologically safe (Carmeli & Gittell, 2008).
• Organizations experience increased retention and stronger performance when employees can voice their concerns freely (Detert & Burris, 2016).
• Employees who report feeling valued by their leaders are 93% more likely to report they are motivated to do their very best on the job (APA Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, 2012).

Take a few moments and reflect on your own leadership behaviors and also those of your team. How do you and your team stack up within the context of the “high six”? Where can you improve? Working to build your “high six” virtues and behaviors will increase your feelings of fulfillment and contentment. It will also make you a better leader.

At Propulo, we coach leaders to focus on prosocial safety behaviors and avoid pitfalls that derail safety efforts. We can help your leaders stay on track and make step change improvements in your safety performance. For more information on this topic, read about Operational Performance and Culture Change at Propulo Consulting.


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