Here at EEK & SENSE, we’ve been investigating the connection between ‘derailing behaviours’ and wellbeing.

By better understanding this relationship, we hoped to help leaders take appropriate exploratory action and either stop their derailing behaviours, improve their wellbeing or ideally both!

If you’re working in leadership development or as an executive coach, you’ll want to read this.

Here’s a snapshot of what our research found.

1. Grumpiness begets more grumpiness. In leaders who exhibited emotional volatility, moodiness or irritability derailing behaviours under pressure, we found significantly lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction and overall subjective wellbeing (SWB).  They also reported significantly lower vitality and energy levels, and poorer boundary management.

The takeaway: Burning through emotions at work is not only a waste of precious energy but makes us feel worse to boot. And there’s more – if we bring this same degree of emotional volatility into our personal lives, we are 25% more likely to report troubled relationships with the key people in our lives, as well as lower resilience and reduced sense of overall meaning and purpose. Beware unchecked emotions!

2. Going underground is bad for your wellbeing & satisfaction. For those of us who withdraw, go quiet under pressure, and retreat into our own worlds, detaching rather than talking to those around us, we also found significantly lower levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of wellbeing.

The takeaway: A problem shared (with family and friends, if not work colleagues) may not halve the problem but it does make us feel better.

3. Being cautious is a risky business! Some leaders freeze in situations where their fear of failure is high, reverting to overly cautious, ‘glass-half-empty’ and risk averse patterns of behaviour. We found this had a negative impact on the quality of their workplace relationships – those who won’t make timely decisions can cause others a lot of frustration. Being overly cautious was also associated with a diminished sense of meaning and purpose, both at work and in our personal lives, turning us into worriers with lower overall levels of resilience and equanimity.

The takeaway: Strategies to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ might be useful if your ‘go-to’ derailer is to become cautious under pressure.

4. Address your fear of displeasing others for greater wellbeing. Leaders who shy away from upsetting others and respond to the prospect of conflict by being too accommodating, obliging or deferential have significantly lower levels of overall subjective wellbeing.

The takeaway: Apparently being a work martyr isn’t the path to feeling good about ourselves – in fact it does the opposite. Today, be courageous, fearless and confident – you’ll be much happier (even if others around you are surprised).

5. Take off your ‘black hat’ at home. Finally, a word of caution to critical thinkers everywhere. While ‘black hat thinking’ in the workplace is often associated with superior analytical skills, we don’t recommend wearing that same hat in your personal life. Outside of work, those who are less inclined to challenge, argue, debate and continually test what another person is saying report significantly better, more trusting, supportive relationships and greater meaning in life.

The takeaway: Our best advice – take off your critical-thinking-hat when you’re with friends and family. They will they appreciate it and you’ll feel better and happier, too.

Our research sample:

  • The above insights are extracts from a study of approximately 50 individuals. Whilst a relatively small sample, it came with the the advantage of being based on real leaders in real senior roles in a large, complex, transforming and fast-paced organisation.
  • This was opportunistic research using data collected as part of a leadership development program for senior leaders, which included the administration of the MEWS and Hogan Assessment System.
  • Our interest in the relationship between dysfunctional leadership behaviour and MEWS was piqued because derailing behaviours tend to emerge during times of stress and strain, when wellbeing can also be most under threat. We were curious to explore and expand our understanding of the behaviours that detract from or enhance wellbeing.
  • For a copy of a presentation delivered earlier to the Australian Psychological Society’s Industrial & Organisational annual conference, click here.

Our conclusions:

Behavioural weaknesses that seem to significantly impact leaders’ wellbeing are associated with being highly ‘Excitable,’ ‘Cautious,’ ‘Reserved,’ ‘Sceptical’ and ‘Dutiful.’

Elevated scores on these specific Hogan (HDS) derailers are significantly related to lower wellbeing across multiple wellbeing dimensions, as described above – Overall Subjective Wellbeing, Satisfaction, Happiness, Meaning, Purpose & Direction, Authentic Relationships, Vitality & Energy, Balance & Boundaries, Resilience & Equanimity.

We’re not saying the other derailers don’t impact performance. It’s just that they don’t seem to have as much of an impact on wellbeing.

Tips and strategies:

During times of overload, strain, stress or other difficulties, leaders will perform better AND have higher levels of wellbeing if they can:

  1. Stay calm, steady and stable
  2. Show openness and vulnerability, staying connected and close to their teams
  3. Increase their tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, risk and failure
  4. Find more courage to stand up for what they believe is right
  5. Develop the spaciousness and maturity of an open mind and an ability to suspend judgment.


Thanks to the support and assistance of Cate Borness at Peter Berry Consulting and Lauren Stephens (formerly Research Assistant at EEK & SENSE) in the analysis of the data.