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What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader

By Alison Reynolds, Dominic Houlder, Jules Goddard, and David Lewis
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What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader by Alison Reynolds, Dominic Houlder, Jules Goddard, and David Lewis

What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader (2019) explains how we've lost sight of some of the most important aspects of leadership, and it presents helpful philosophical perspectives to get us back on track. Drawing from both ancient and modern philosophy, the authors outline simple yet powerful approaches to rethinking strategy, management, and communication. And what’s even better is that these philosophical “hacks” aren’t just for CEOs. By using these thought experiments and insights, we can all flourish at work and outside of it. 

Key idea 1 of 11

When it comes to improving workplace satisfaction, feelings can be unreliable guides. 

When do you feel best at work? 

Chances are, you’ve probably talked to someone in HR about it. Smart workplaces care a lot about this issue. After all, research shows that employees work better when they feel better. The holy grail is for employees to feel self-actualized. Self-actualized is a fancy term for employees feeling that they’ve fulfilled their potential and used their talent. This is why it’s become standard management strategy to gather personal feedback. Seems logical, right? 

Unfortunately, such assessments are often misleading. One of the reasons they don’t offer reliable feedback is that feelings are hard to judge accurately. Imagine that a big financial firm is trying to figure out whether its new open-floor plan is promoting the cooperation and community it was hoping for. Employees are asked things like “Does using a large common space make you feel more connected?” or “Are you happy with the change?”

While the intention is good, there are a lot of problems with basing research on this approach. How people feel and how they report feeling are affected by all sorts of biases. First off, our perception changes over time. For instance, maybe you’ve always worked in a private office, and so you report hating the common workspace the first month, only to change your opinion later.   

Your answer can also be altered by trivial factors, like being interviewed by someone to whom you’re attracted. Finally, there’s no ideal timing for asking such survey questions. Say you had a great conversation with a coworker in the common space on your way to the interview. Maybe you’d felt so-so about the space before, but because you’ve just had such a positive experience, you report loving the new space.  

The other major problem with using these kinds of assessments for devising strategy is that even if we could assess workers’ feelings accurately, they alone wouldn’t tell us enough. The fact is, feeling self-actualized is very different from being self-actualized. That’s because when we use the desire to feel good as our only guide, we aren’t aiming for anything really substantial. Our feelings are important, but they aren’t the only important things.

As we’ll see, philosophy argues that the good life is less about feeling good and more about pursuing things that are good for us.

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