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Prof. Dr. Peter Fischer is Professor of Social, Work, Organizational and Business Psychology at the University of Regensburg. In his research he deals, among other things, with the psychological effects of humanistic and ethically-oriented leadership, with the exchange of information and communication in organizations, with motivation, work performance and job satisfaction as well as with personnel selection and personnel development.

What exactly is humanistic leadership?

Humanistic leadership means that leaders are first and foremost experts on people. You are familiar with psychology and know about cognitive and affective processes and their influence on behavioral regulation.

That doesn’t sound like the “typical” manager.

Men and older executives in particular often get their hair up just by mentioning the word “emotion”. Many do not understand how important such supposedly “soft” factors are not only for the well-being but also for the performance of employees. This has nothing to do with the “cuddle course”. Emotions are a basic behavior control mechanism and a decisive influencing factor: If, for example, employees dread having to see the boss again on Sunday evening, they are less motivated, perform poorly and get sick more often. This is based on purely emotional processes. We can’t ignore that.

When it comes to communication, many people switch off immediately. But communication, as “soft” as it may sound, is nothing other than data exchange and information transfer. And if we record in studies what the main activities of a manager are, it becomes clear that 80 percent of the working time is filled with communicative activities, with meetings, meetings, employee interviews, service instructions, e-mails, etc. So it’s only logical that a a deeper understanding of communicative processes is useful for a manager.

Are there such things as specific behaviors that make a humanistic leader?

The humanistic leader can abstract from himself. We all have our worldviews, values and motives. If you ask 30 people why they get up and go to work in the morning, you will get 30 different answers. One wants to earn money, the other pursues a career, one maintains social contacts, the next makes his contribution to society. If a manager now projects their motives onto their employees and leads them accordingly, in other words as they should be led themselves, then they fail to recognize that they will not reach half of the people in this way at all. A psychologically oriented manager therefore tries to fathom the values and motives of the employees, to address them accordingly and to use them.

And here we come to a second point: The humanistic manager is interested in their employees and listens more than they speak. In a good employee interview, the employee should have 80 percent of the speaking share. The manager, on the other hand, listens and learns something about the other person: How does Mr. Müller tick? What moves Ms. Meier?

In the early days of industrial psychology, the prevailing thought was that humans were something like a “biological machine”. He’s not. You had to see that quickly, because the people got sick in rows. This led to the insight that people need more than light, food and standardized work processes. He is a social being and wants to work with others. In the meantime we are still a step further: We assume that general rules are not enough, that people are absolutely individual – also in the way they should be led.

That implies an image of human beings according to which people are not lazy and have to be kicked, but want to work if you give them the opportunity.

Life is activity. And I am convinced: almost everyone wants to be active and use their time wisely. As a manager, I can control this need for activity and help employees to develop optimally.

With all the enthusiasm that I can spark in my employees as a manager, I of course have to be careful. Because people shouldn’t burn so hard for their work that they burn out or just derive their self-worth from their work. And here we come to another point that defines a humanistic manager: They are also interested in private matters. She asks how things are at home and feels responsible for critical life events or illness by helping to find solutions, for example through a new working time model. Twenty or thirty years ago, there was still a strong separation between professional and private matters. But it doesn’t work that way. The different areas of life influence each other – today more than ever.

Listening, taking an interest in people and their private life … These seem like good prerequisites for gaining the trust of employees. But that also requires a lot of trust.

Trust is the glue of every team and an important prerequisite for performance and health. A good manager is always very relational and manages to build positive relationships with employees. However, this doesn’t always work as well as the people concerned believe. In an experiment we measured how much trust the manager has in the team and vice versa. It is often the case that the manager trusts the team very much, but does not get this trust back – and does not notice it. We humans like to lie in our own pockets, see ourselves a bit too positively, and overestimate ourselves. The cat looks in the mirror, the tiger out. And managers also think: They all totally trust me.

And there we come to the next point: A humanistic manager does not believe he is reflecting on numbers, data and facts. And there we come to the next point: A humanistic manager does not believe he is reflecting on numbers, data and facts…. For a humanistic manager, an employee survey is not only a chore that needs to be ticked off with as little effort as possible, but a central control instrument, a chance to find out what moves the employees and how things are with the team. Employee surveys primarily record “soft” factors such as satisfaction, trust or commitment. Too often these are simply dismissed. But these are precisely the factors that differentiate between excellence and service, as well as between health and illness.

So is humanistic leadership also successful leadership?

Absolutely. As far as we know, it is the most effective type of leadership. We see this in sick leave research, but also in many other areas: All classic outcome variables in work psychology – such as performance, satisfaction and commitment – correlate positively with humanistic leadership.

Many “leadership gurus” today want to sell and convey their models: This is how leadership works and no other way. We say: The manager is an expert in the psychological world of their employees and reacts individually to the respective person and situation. This is more effective and more adequate than a uniform, fixed model.

Can humanistic leadership be learned?

We have had good experiences. But it’s a long process and hard work. If I were to say otherwise, I would have to join the leadership gurus.

Even a trained manager does not become free from their own psychological processes. However, she can learn to understand it, consciously reflect it – and perhaps distance herself from it a little and avoid wrong reactions. Actually, it’s no different than in psychotherapy. Because in this context, too, the point is to reflect on yourself again and again, to become aware of your own automatically running psychological processes.

This is certainly not for everyone.

Sure, there are leaders who like these things go in one ear and out the other. But for many there is a rethink and a change in behavior.

But one very important requirement should be met: you have to like people. The classic: someone studies mechanical engineering, likes his job as an engineer, is very good at it and gets a promotion. And suddenly he is no longer supposed to tinker with his engines alone, but instead guide people – a completely different job. Don’t get me wrong: this can work. But it won’t work if our engineer doesn’t like people. No rating: that’s okay. The tinkerers in the quiet room are just as important as the communicative people and can make great careers as experts, but they are just not good at management positions. Managers should be interested in people.

Executives in particular tend to be narcissistic. How does that work with humanistic leadership?

Hardly. Narcissistic people enjoy power for their own sake. They don’t use them to change things for the better. So many problems arise because of the high positions of authoritarian narcissists. And quite a few companies have been completely hit the wall by narcissists. If managers were selected with the help of psychological diagnostics, that would be the first thing we would try to rule out.

But the fact is that it is precisely narcissistic people who easily get into high management positions.

Yes, because they know the rules, are good at presenting themselves and are not afraid to use their elbows or exploit others for themselves. And we still use too little aptitude diagnostics when filling management positions. We have seen a rethink since the financial crisis, but we are still a long way from really exhausting the knowledge of modern psychology.

Leadership is and will remain an asymmetrical relationship. Even a humanistic leadership style cannot change that.

Right. Leadership means: one person has more power than the other. But you don’t have to let the other person feel that. Humanistic leadership means that power is reflected. And this reduces the likelihood that it will be exploited. A humanistic manager, for example, does not hold an appraisal interview in their office, but goes into the offices of the employees. She also sees herself more as a service provider: she bears responsibility and serves the team by leading it.

Humanistic leadership means understanding in depth how people “work” and leading them differently depending on their individual disposition. It’s complex, it’s difficult. And it is only too tempting to look for simpler models, for clear rules. But there is no such thing. From a psychological and scientific point of view, this relaxation cannot be given to managers. You can only tell them: You should prepare yourself for the unbelievable complexity and heterogeneity of human social behavior. The best way to do this is by becoming a good psychologist.

Susanne Koch asked the questions.