• Leadership

Understanding Leadership Psychology

Professor Maja Djikic describes the thinking behind Rotman School of Management’s ‘Psychology of Leadership’ program


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While many leadership courses touch on aspects of psychology, Rotman’s Psychology of Leadership program is exceptional in offering a comprehensive view of the psychological dynamics involved in leading self, other people and organizations.

With the tag line ‘Transform Yourself and the Way You Lead’, this 100% online program provides science-based tools to help managers and leaders “prioritize goals, cultivate focus, build resilience, prevent burnout and build capacity for sustainable change, both in themselves and the teams they lead.”

“For a leader, it's important to have a comprehensive idea of what they're dealing with when they're dealing with themselves and a bunch of people,” says Maja Djikic, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and HR Management and the Director of Self-Development Laboratory at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

The program focuses on two sides of leadership—leading people and attaining organizational goals—and considers how to find the right balance between the two. “So basically, you have these two balls in the air and I find really excellent leaders don't let either drop,” observes Djikic, who leads the progam.

A starting point is leading oneself and having the motivation to be a leader. According to Djikic, “To be a good leader is to have a goal that involves things beyond just you.” Being primarily interested in bossing people around is absolutely not what is required. “Motivation in not something you do to yourself,” she says. Rather it has to do with “putting ourselves on paths of development. And because we are limited human beings, we often don't really know what develops us, which is why we find ourselves doing things that develop us without having anticipated them.” The self-development task is often more about removing the obstacle to being motivated.

When it comes to inspiring motivation in others, the first thing Djikic asks us to understand “is that other people are not us. Many different things may motivate them that can be very different from that which motivates us. And we need to understand the difference.” Some will be motivated by work goals and purpose, others by more prosaic things—having a flexible work schedule, freedom to collect children from school, being in a collaborative team, etc. “We need to know what is it is that motivates them the most, and how to match that against the needs of the organization.” Can you as a leader help align things they want with things that are positive for the organization?

Secondly Djikic asks us to identify motivational conflicts. “Because organizations that don't anticipate organizational conflict are basically not understanding how psychology works.” There will be motivational conflict in our own life—typically the conflict between working long hours for the organization at the expense of valuable time spent with our family. The psychologically aware leader will understand their own motivational conflicts, and anticipate other people's. They will ask of self and others, “What do you value? What are your goals? What makes you excited to be here? What's most difficult about being here? And how is there a way to align this thing that the organization needs to be done with that thing you need?”


Join Prof Maja Djikic on Rotman School of Management’s Psychology of Leadership program 

Dates: 17 November – 1 December, 2022  |  Format: 5 half-days over 3 weeks  | Location: Online


Another psychological dynamic, related to the two sides of leadership, is that people are motivated by personal values and career priorities that go beyond the needs of the organization. “It's very easy for organizations to see its own goals as paramount,” says Djikic, and yet it is important to remember, while you have your organizational goals, “People, who are their own units, are not part of you.” As a leader you should provide people with development support and offer what flexibility you can in terms of meeting their personal goals, but if it is not working out and they want to move on so be it—it is important to have the conversation and not let unmotivated people fester. It is also best to cultivate everyone, even those you suspect might end up leaving.

Psychological factors play a pivotal role in leading through the volatile and uncertain times organizations face today and in finding personal and organizational resilience. There are two parts to this, explains Djikic, avoiding burnout and developing psychological processes to better deal with adversity.

“Preventing burnout—where most advisers talk about the management of energy—is about how much you have in a cup and if you pour too much out.” People usually think of this as a physical energy, but as she points out, “What forces things out of the cup is not just physical work. It is physical work that you don't want to do. And it's a very big distinction.” Avoiding this is about making good choices about use of time and energy. There are also things that pour back into the cup, “things that pick you up, even though they don't necessarily give you more physical energy—talking to a friend, listening to a song, laughing at a show. So different things pour back into the cup. Leaders are not very good at this. Usually, they just get burnt out.”

When it comes to processes to better deal with adversity, “Resilience is actually a way that you organize yourself, your systems, your mind, your emotions, your motivation to deal in a particular way when challenges come along.” All these different parts of yourself can be seen as links in a chain or as a wheel, and to develop resilience rather than acting on behaviour, says Djikic, “You need to act earlier in the chain, to act on the emotion, or act on the mind.”

One thing that people miss is that at the very root of the emotion is a goal. Without a goal, there is no emotion. 

Emotion is clearly important, but rather than thinking about controlling emotion we should learn how to process emotion to a positive end. “Emotion is an evolutionary signal to us to solve a problem. Unfortunately, most of us focus on the problem instead of focusing on the goal and the solution.” Djikic quotes the examples of a difficult disengaged employee. Rather than wanting to confront this person, we should focus on the ultimate goal—getting the job done. “Sit down and have a conversation with them. But without the emotion bursting out into negative behaviors. Learn how to get to the root and center of the problem to solve the problem faster and more effectively.”

“One thing that people miss is that at the very root of the emotion is a goal. Without a goal, there is no emotion. A lot of energy is spent either trying to suppress emotion or express it. But really, they're missing the point. Only processing it can get to their desired goal.”

When it comes to organizational resilience, it is not enough to focus on preserving the status quo. “It’s the ability to adapt effectively to change. Not just to cope with change, but to do something even better, because this thing is different. In the first moments [of a change or crisis] everybody seems to be impacted, but the second thought is that there are processes that could become much more effective in the transition. There's opportunity from the change. And that's where we need to get to, rather than be stuck in the first moments of panic.”

Considering the psychology of leadership, we tend to think certain personality types will be best suited to certain specific business or organizational situations. Djikic believes this is a false way to think. She believes “The problem in psychology, partially, is its insistence in categorizing into types. I frequently see leaders categorized as four types—What exactly can these categories mean? You have 7 billion people, and you have four categories, which makes you a leader that's similar to another 2 billion people! Really?”

“What looks to us like a personality is really a set of skills that we developed early and that has been shaped by our experience.” Rather than being a leader stuck with one personality type we can grow, says Djikic, “Our development lies in moving outside of the box we’ve created for ourselves. So, if you're the kind of person for whom it's very easy to take risks and be dynamic, your growth is how to sit in a room by yourself and not be stimulated by others. And for the person who's been more within themselves, their growth, their challenge, is to go out.” She does not agree with ‘strength-based psychology’, a theory that became very popular, which encouraged people to double down on what they are good at. Her view is that “Here's a set of skills you have and there's this other set of skills that you can develop too that will really round you out as a fully rounded person.”

The Psychology of Leadership program focuses on these themes. “On the personal motivation side, we help leaders get to the root of what it is that they're wanting for themselves. And that's not always clear to them,” says Djikic. “On the organizational side, we help them align with organizational goals and understand how to facilitate conditions for their team, and for themselves, not to get burned out. We help learn how to process emotion—how do you get to that goal and do it quickly. And then because you can't force somebody else to process emotion or self-develop, we show how to create conditions and trainings for others, so they too learn these things.”

The program is run fully online, live and synchronously. Djikic has found this works very well, “because it allows me to do something that is more difficult to do in person, which is to put people in very small groups for short periods of time, let's say seven minutes. So, I'll say, I need you to have this conversation for seven minutes, and then come back to the main group. If we were in a classroom, I’d actually need to send them to various different rooms—seven minutes would take about half an hour—online I can maintain a strong dynamic.”

Understanding the psychological dynamics of leadership enables managers and leaders to promote healthy personal and organizational development and, armed with the tools and techniques provided by this program, to take the steps necessary for self-development and facilitate conditions for broader team and organizational development. 

Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

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