Stuart Gentle Publisher at Onrec

UK workers say only 1 in 20 bosses are good leaders

Only one UK boss in every twenty is a good leader, according to a study carried out by management consultancy Orion Partners

  • 1 in 4 leaders have a destructive approach to management
  • 47% of employees feel threatened by their leaders
  • Just 15% of the workforce say their leader is interested in how they feel
  • Only one-third of leaders are self-aware
  • Confidence in today's leaders appears to have reached rock bottom - 95% do not demonstrate critical "brain-friendly" leadership traits

Only one UK boss in every twenty is a good leader, according to a study carried out by management consultancy Orion Partners.

The study, based on a poll of 2,000 UK workers, revealed a damning employee assessment of today’s business leaders and their leadership style. It found, in tough economic times, employee confidence in UK leaders appears to be at rock-bottom. Just 4.8% of UK workers believe that their leaders were leading in an entirely “brain-friendly” manner. Neuroscience research, applied by Orion to leadership development, reveals brain-friendly leadership is critical in driving workforce engagement, high performance and overall success.

24% of employees said the leader of their current organisation was entirely “brain-fried”. Totally brain-fried leaders are over-stressed, poor communicators, and lack empathy with their employees. Orion Partners say brain-fried leaders have a catastrophically bad, and in some cases destructive, approach to leadership.

Jan Hills, the partner responsible for talent and leadership at Orion, explains: “Every business understands the importance of good leadership, but many admit to having difficulty in finding and developing people that will inspire and make a difference. However studies in neuroscience – the science of how the brain actually works – have revealed common patterns in human behaviour that have significant implications for leaders. Orion Partners believe these findings hold the key to understanding what makes “brain-friendly” leaders good and what makes “brain-fried” leaders bad.”

“In this tough economic climate, leaders need to maximise the productivity of their employees. At the moment, there is a productivity gap in the economy. We’ve got the strongest labour market of any G7 country other than Canada, but economic output is lower than expected because the workforce is not firing on all cylinders. One way to increase productivity is by improving the quality of UK leadership. Brain-friendly leadership training can help do that.” 


Almost half (47%) of the employees Orion surveyed said that the leaders of their organisation made them feel threatened, rather than rewarded. Minimising threat helps the brain process information more effectively and make better decisions.

Jan Hills says that: “The majority of leaders don’t understand how to minimise feelings of threat and this is hugely problematic because it is estimated that these feelings are noticed three times more than feelings of reward. By not managing these feelings of threat, leaders are creating limitations on people’s ability to perform and in severe cases increasing the risk of employees suffering from anxiety and depression. As the feeling of threat increases, people become more stressed and anxious which has a detrimental effect on our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain through which we process information and make decisions.

“The brain automatically seeks to minimise threat and maximise reward. This social behaviour is deeply engrained in our human existence and in its simplest form can be characterised by our natural drive to survive. In today’s world we no longer have to fight off sabre-tooth tigers to survive but the same guiding principle continues to drive our behaviour – both at work and at home. It is therefore rather discouraging to find that almost half of UK employees feel threatened by their bosses.”


When asked “When your organisation needs to change are you made aware of why it is good for you personally?” just 35% of employees say they were. Orion’s research has found the best way to manage change is to explain to each employee why it is good for them personally. Good leadership is even more important in times of change because the brain is hard-wired to view change as a threat.

Jan Hills explains: “We have found that the best leaders are those who understand how people automatically react to change and actively take steps to help employees embrace it by showing them why it is good for them personally. In contrast, poor leaders simply tell their staff to change, which increases negative feelings and tends to create resistance. This often then slows down strategic and operational effectiveness and creates barriers to change which are difficult to overcome.”


Demonstrating empathy is an important behaviour for good leaders because it helps ensure employees feel they are on an equal footing with their peers. But 85% of employees polled in Orion’s survey said that the leader of their current organisation was more interested in what they do – rather than how they are feeling.

Jan Hills explains: “One thing that really distinguishes great leaders is their ability to empathise, so it is disturbing to find such a large percentage of leaders are ignoring the feelings of their employees. Empathy invokes good will and helps dialogue flow in a positive manner. In addition, the experience of being understood is very rewarding to an individual. At a neurological level this experience boosts serotonin which contributes towards feelings of well-being and happiness. Without empathy, people can be susceptible to greater stress and feelings similar to physical pain.”


33% of surveyed employees said that their leaders demonstrated self-awareness Research from Orion has revealed self-awareness has a direct link with the credibility and overall effectiveness of leaders.

Jan Hills explains: “Self-awareness is one of the least discussed leadership competencies but arguably one of the most important. If you don’t have self-awareness you often pretend to know it all and never admit to mistakes. This type of behaviour is not conducive to a collaborative working environment and can instil fear in employees who don’t want to appear unqualified. Soliciting feedback and listening to your employees is very important as it promotes a state of equality and fairness. This is particularly important when employees are under stressful circumstances, such as during change, because good “brain-friendly” leaders know employees will have a heightened sense of inequality due to reduced levels of serotonin. Self-aware leaders are better able to understand their own reactions and manage them, lessening the contagion of their stress onto their workers”


The quality of the UK’s leaders could be improved by using the principles of neuroscience. Orion have applied these to the design and delivery of a new leadership development programme called BrainBox.

All BrainBox programmes are designed specifically for each client and tailored to their needs, but typically include an initial set of workshops, action based projects, coaching, plus access to BrainBox’s online social learning community.  Each workshop, and the overall programme, is designed to maximise insight amongst participants rather than sharing theory and models.  Each programme is likely to include approximately 50% of application based tools and exercises, including action-based learning.  Following the workshops, participants will then spend at least 3 months working with colleagues and a coach, together with access to the exclusive online social learning community.

Jan Hills explains: “In just three months of continuously applying neuroscience principles to leadership development, managers can become more effective. On average, just 1% of traditional leadership training is applied three months after a workshop. By applying neuroscience principles to leadership training, the brain becomes hardwired to behave in a way that improves how leaders motivate and communicate with their teams. It’s a much better return on investment.”

BrainBox was developed by Orion Partners and is available exclusively to Orion Partners’ clients.