Each month, I answer a few fascinating questions from readers about work and psychology.

December 2020

1. What is one work trend or buzzword that you would like the world to retire?

~Collen C., New Hope, Pennsylvania

I’d love to retire employee engagement. I don’t know anyone whose career dream is to be engaged at work. Even chief HR, people, and talent officers don’t wake up in the morning thinking about engaging their teams!

Engagement is the attention and absorption that we bring to the job, but it doesn’t mean we’re not struggling in life. As every nurse, doctor, teacher, entrepreneur, and compulsive workaholic knows, it’s possible to be highly engaged and exhausted at the same time. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us that engagement at work doesn’t shield us from burnout or mental health challenges.

I think it’s time to replace engagement with a more meaningful focus: employee well-being. Well-being includes the quality of our lives outside work, not just in the office. It depends on our sense of purpose, support, autonomy, and psychological safety. And it’s not just good for employees; it can be beneficial to employers as well. In a study from 1984 to 2011, firms that made the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America outperformed their peers’ stock returns by 2.3-3.8% annually. I hope one silver lining of COVID is that leaders ditch employee engagement in favor of taking responsibility for employee well-being.

2. Why is changing your Big 5 personality traits going to be the next big thing in self-help and commercialized interventions?

~Pauliina P., Helsinki, Finland

I hope it isn’t. If you’re an introvert, experiments suggest that an hour of extraversion might be energizing—but a week of it can be exhausting. Similarly, if you set a goal of becoming more conscientious or more emotionally stable, evidence shows that you’re likely to become less of both over the course of the year. Since personality traits have a biogenetic basis, they can be hard to change, and Finnish psychologists have even found that attempting to modify our traits might be a risk factor for rumination and depression. People can make adjustments with clinical help, but I think it’s a rocky road for self-help.

Instead of trying to change our personality traits, a more achievable and authentic option might be to change our personality states. For me, that means practicing specific behaviors that I want to adapt in specific situations. As an introvert, I spend a lot of time on stage. In the language of Brian Little, my goal wasn’t to change my first nature and become an extravert. It was to expand my comfort zone so that the act of performing became second nature. Early on it felt like I was being false to my personality. Now it feels like I’m being true to my values.

For more, check out our WorkLife episode on your hidden personality: Apple | Other devices | Transcript

3. What are your thoughts about the similarities in leadership and parenting?

~Jessica M., White River Junction, Vermont

I know of one skill that’s critical for both leaders and parents: tough love. Across cultures, research reveals that children have higher well-being—and better academic performance—when parents couple responsiveness to their needs with high standards for their behavior. Similarly, great leaders care about people and have high expectations for their performance. I think this is part of why moderately agreeable and moderately assertive leaders tend to be more effective than leaders on either extreme: they care about employees and believe in their potential, but they’re not afraid to hold them accountable.

That’s what disagreeable givers do best. Although they have high hopes for people to succeed, they’re not shy about showing disappointment when they fall short. As parents and leaders, they deliver what Kim Scott calls radical candor, understanding that in the long run, inspiration comes from a combination of caring personally and challenging directly.