Learn and Lead Better

5 leadership insights based on new research

Researchers in the field of psychology are constantly uncovering new insights into effective leadership. Whether you’re a seasoned executive or a rising manager, you can use these findings to refine your personal leadership style and improve your organization’s performance.

THE FINDING: Supportive leader behavior is directly associated with engagement. And it can also enable other engagement drivers.

Supportive leadership is everything. Data collected and analyzed by The BB&T Leadership Institute supports the idea that paying individual attention to employees, being supportive of their needs and granting them autonomy over their daily work correlates with more engaged employees.

In addition, a supportive management relationship also enables other strong engagement drivers for employees. Namely, it supports a healthy level of challenge in work tasks, psychological safety to freely share ideas and opinions and certainty in the face of constant change.


  • Pay attention to each employee’s needs and what he or she wants out of his or her job.
  • Show that you and your managers have each employee’s best interests at heart.
  • Grant them autonomy wherever you can.
  • Focus on outcomes and let them figure out the best processes to achieve those outcomes. 

THE FINDING: Humility can help leaders be more effective.

A 2018 study(opens in a new tab) in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that a healthy growth mindset and clear sense of relationships with colleagues helps leaders develop humility.

Humility, it turns out, is more than a virtue: Employees of leaders who displayed humility performed better than employees of less-humble leaders. Through humility, leaders are able to improve their personal relationships with employees, boost employees’ energy and lessen employees’ emotional exhaustion. That supports better performance. 


  • Demonstrate your power with a sense of humility.
  • See humility as a tool to boost your influence, not weaken it. You’ll likely be able to exert a stronger impact on your team and ultimately on your division or company’s performance if you lead humbly.

THE FINDING: Positive self-reflection can help maintain high energy in your leadership role.

Many leaders become exhausted and drained at work. A 2019 Journal of Applied Psychology article(opens in a new tab) summarizing two field experiments reported that leaders who used expressive writing to reflect on their positive traits experienced less emotional depletion and higher levels of engagement at work.

The researchers in this study also found that leaders who used writing to engage in positive self-reflection enhanced their influence in their organizations. Why? They experienced improvements in both clout and altruistic involvement with colleagues. 


  • Reflect on your strengths in writing. Doing so will help you maintain a high level of energy at work.
  • Regularly set aside time for positive self-reflection as a way to make a wise investment in your career.

THE FINDING: Meaningful work could be more important for employees not in leadership roles.

It’s widely assumed that finding meaning in work is most important for people who put their job at the center of their life. But a 2018 article(opens in a new tab) in the Journal of Business and Psychology proposes that it might actually be the other way around. It could be even more important to remind employees for whom work is a peripheral part of their lives about the good their work does in the world.

For employees who did not see their job as central to their identity, finding meaning in their work had a bigger impact on their commitment than for those who saw their jobs as important to who they are.

The study shows meaningful work can be valued in all types of jobs and beneficial to all types of people. Leaders who recognize this insight can boost employee retention, engagement and motivation.


  • Highlight the ways that all your employees’ jobs make the world better for others outside the company.

THE FINDING: Integrating work and life may improve work engagement, but may damage overall well-being.

Many employees value the ability to work flexible schedules and blend work duties into their nonwork life (for example, by answering emails on a smart phone while watching a child’s soccer game).

Leaders might also intentionally blur the nonwork and work line, because it can lead to higher work engagement. A 2018 study(opens in a new tab) in the Journal of Business and Psychology suggests, however, that one’s general well-being suffers from work-life blending.

Employees and leaders who have integrated work into nonwork life appear to have less opportunity to recover during downtime, which can cause exhaustion and, ultimately, poor separation between work and nonwork stressors and benefits.


  • Beware of flexible schedules and “always on” work backfiring in the form of employee exhaustion.
  • Place limits on after-hours activity and coach employees to keep a healthy quantity of downtime outside of work.
  • Do the same for yourself, putting barriers around your personal life and giving yourself adequate downtime.

5 Leadership Tips

  1. Recognize employees, be supportive and grant them autonomy.
  2. Be humble. It helps employees’ performance and boosts your influence as a leader.
  3. Set aside time to reflect, in writing, on your positive attributes. It’s good for your health – and it will increase your organizational clout.
  4. Recognize that every employee’s job is meaningful to him or her, and that you can help employees visualize what their work means beyond company walls.
  5. Keep your personal life and your professional life separate.

By Patrick Gallagher, Ph.D. and Jordan Green
Photography by Ezra Bailey, Getty Images 

Branch Banking and Trust Company is now Truist Bank. Learn more(opens in a new tab)