When Leaders Are “Unconscious”

February 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

At a church event last Saturday evening I encountered a parishioner who wanted to have a conversation at the urinal.  He continued to talk all during our brief encounter, rarely allowed me to interject a response, and when I tried to leave the bathroom he continued to talk.  It was a friendly, harmless and funny encounter but it illustrates a problem.  We are sometimes unconscious of the impression we create with others and the resulting emotional reactions.  When leaders are unconscious it can damage productivity, quality, and most importantly, employee engagement.

We need employee engagement not employee control

Employee engagement is now known to be one of the most important drivers of sustained organizational results.  The results from employee engagement are holistic or optimal.  This means that the improved results are not mitigated by any damage to individual employee well-being (burnout, unhealthy stress, or turnover) or to the system as a whole (reduced quality or damaged customer loyalty).

The typical organizational culture appears to hold a false belief about leaders (or any leader).  Once promoted, this new leaders somehow now is endowed with superior intelligence and judgment just by the very event of the promotion.  This false belief can damage a leader’s ability to listen.

In many organizations leaders are put into a position with assumed (perhaps even demanded) omnipotence and omniscience.  For example, leaders are usually put in a position of judgment about employee behaviors and performance.  They are required to approve changes to procedures and sometimes even policy.  They often steal, or even hoard, decision making responsibility or information and they can ignore input from employees about performance improvement ideas.  Employees who perceive that they have less decision making freedom and less opportunity to express their creativity, and will not be heard will have reduced engagement.

Leaders behave “unconsciously” with the best of intentions.  They are operating as best they can within the limits of our current way of thinking and within the current assumed hierarchical pyramid structure of the organization.  For example, many leaders will claim to have an “open-door” policy yet they will also need to manage people with a fear based policy such as the performance review.

The environment created by the control policies such as the performance review or pay-for-performance creates fear that causes an employee to want to walk past that “open door.”  Because of this, a leader remains unconscious because the environment does not allow a safe exchange of the truth.

We can overcome the unconscious behavior

How can we overcome these unconscious behaviors?  First, we must acknowledge that our thinking needs to change.  We must stop being unconscious about our limited leadership paradigms.  We must embrace the idea that leaders are not omnipotent or omniscient and allow everyone to make mistakes while working as a team to make the whole system better.  We need to think of a leader as a facilitator of improvement and not a judge of people.  Even the role of coach is incorrect because it still suggests that the leader (or coach) has a higher level of knowledge or intelligence.  Often times this is not true, especially when the leader is new to the role.

Second, we must be able and willing to give the “unconscious leader” feedback about his/her behaviors.  As leaders, we must be willing to receive feedback and as peers, or employees we must see that it is safe to give it.  We need a new way of thinking about the leader that starts with this role of facilitator.

Third, we need changes in our policies about people.  We need to replace the current performance review and pay-for-performance which were specifically created to control people and which damage employee engagement.

Finally, as leaders we need to be more observant of the impact we have on others.  This is one of the key competencies of emotional intelligence.  Being aware of the emotional mind set of others is a key skill to knowing how to be a better leader.  I am hopeful my friend at church noticed how I left the bathroom before he finished his monologue.  If he did notice, he can perhaps change his approach next time and that will encourage improved open and honest communication.


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