Although the unconscious is invisible, it still has to be dealt with, says Shelley Reciniello. One way to tackle this is for leaders to build a conscious culture in the workplace
How would Sherlock or Poirot deduce what went wrong in these situations? A sales and trading division of an investment bank hired an ace off their major competitor’s trading floor. After six months, not only was the trader in question not earning his salary, let alone his guaranteed bonus, he had been a divisive force among a formerly cohesive team who have experienced the downside of his risky trades.
The board of a European company replaced a home-grown CEO with an American CEO who promised to usher in the modernity the company lacked. But the new CEO spent his first six months creating an alliance with a US company that was interested in taking over the European organization.
A tech company, AlsoRan, is bested by its leading competitor, OlderBrother, who releases a piece of technology to the marketplace that the troops at AlsoRan have been playing with for years. Apparently, upstairs at AlsoRan did not know what downstairs was doing, and so missed the opportunity.
What lies beneath
Both Holmes and Poirot look for what other people do not readily see: what is underneath the words and actions that can belie the motivation. Often things go wrong in companies that shouldn’t. On the surface, everything seems poised for success and then the worst happens. Unknown psychological factors can negatively impact the leadership, the team and the individual. Entire initiatives can fail for no reason until the “unconscious” motivations of the work team are explored. Departments, and even entire corporations, can have unrecognized unconscious agendas to fail instead of succeed.
Our great detectives would conclude that all three examples demonstrate a lack of conscious leadership. They involve leaders who were not aware of their own secret motivations and hidden agendas that caused the result.
The head of the sales and trading division hired the ace because he felt his steady but unglamorous team was too risk averse and not flashy enough. His unacknowledged fantasy was to relive his own younger, glory days through the ace. He did not see the player’s narcissism and recklessness as responsible for his willingness to take risks that were ultimately ill matched to the modern marketplace. The department was better served by the caution and judgement that his team had cultivated. Likewise, the board members of the European company were so blinded by their own feelings of inferiority and envy of US companies that seemed to be cornering the market that they inadvertently invited the fox into the henhouse.
While at AlsoRan, the scholarly, old guard bosses upstairs felt threatened by the start-up techie troops downstairs, and sabotaged an open flow of communication. The innovative ideas of the young creatives who were hired exactly for that out-of-the-box thinking never made it up the stairs to where the “real thinkers” ran the company.
Doing business today requires navigating the underground psychological terrain of people at work: egos that run amok putting personal success ahead of corporate achievement; palpable, underlying anger in response to company policies; managers who ill treat others; fear so contagious that people spend most of their time just trying to keep their jobs instead of doing their jobs. In the incredible pressure cooker that is the modern workplace, how can leaders hope to keep their eyes on an invisible ball?
Hidden time bombs
Every day all over the world, people enter the workplace with personal preoccupations: work pressures, health concerns, money worries, family
problems, relationship issues, political viewpoints, and more. That’s a lot of variables to consider. And these are the things that people are conscious of, that can impact their work and be difficult for others to cope with.
But there are other preoccupations the workforce does not have a clue about – the ones that are unconscious. These could be unresolved childhood issues, fears, anxieties, fantasies, drives, prejudices, obsessions and complicated emotions like anger and guilt. That’s what is happening when a person sabotages something they have been striving for, such as a promotion or a deal – or when someone gets angry with another for no obvious reason. They can then become upset and confused because the behaviour is illogical.
People do not leave their psychological selves, conscious or unconscious, at home when they come to the workplace, and there are many permutations of how work and self – and self and others – collide. Human beings are not rational, and every day their illogical, unconscious minds are walking into offices with hidden agendas that even they cannot see.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, human beings were thought to be rational. But over the centuries, people began to seriously doubt the rationality of human beings, especially when confronted by a host of illogical things that people did, such as engaging in barbaric practices and constantly declaring war on each other. Ideas about the “unconscious mind” were frequently bandied about in philosophical circles, but it took Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s to organize them into a comprehensive theory that has formed the cornerstone of our knowledge of human psychology.
According to psychoanalytic theory, we act irrationally because we are motivated by unconscious forces that our conscious minds are constantly struggling to control. We keep them out of our conscious awareness because we feel they are shameful or frightening or dangerous. Things like impulses, feelings, fears, motivations and desires that come from ourselves, our childhood experiences, life events and interactions with other people. These internal factors interact with other workers’ issues, as well as with the external, real-life demands of the workplace such as productivity, competition, time pressure, profit and loss, marketplace strategy and innovation.
Building conscious cultures
Although the unconscious is invisible, it still has to be dealt with. One way to do so is for leaders to build a conscious culture. Conscious cultures are built from the top down. The first step is to understand that what you see is not always what you get. Believe in the unconscious mind of your organization and look for it everywhere.
It is like being at the theatre and there are two shows going on – the one you are seeing, displayed on the stage in front of you, and the one going on backstage behind the curtain. What you see is only half the story. The secret life that is hidden from view explains what you are really seeing and why it is happening. Gaining that perspective keeps you from being blindsided by unexpected events and allows you to direct the action toward the goal you want to achieve. The second step is to make “what is unconscious conscious” – know the whole story about yourself and the people you interact with.
Without reflection and introspection, irrationality stays underground where it grows more potent every day. The conscious rational mind, both the individual one and the corporate one, can only be strengthened by dealing with unconscious issues, not by pretending that they do not exist.
Diversity and inclusion
In her feature article for Dialogue, “Cracking the code for women in business” (2013), Liz Mellon referred to unconscious bias as one of three primary reasons why women have not made it to the top tier of management in record numbers. The unconscious plays a particular role in perpetuating the lack of progress for women and other minorities. Becoming aware of our inner prejudices – the ways we classify and stereotype other people – and making the roots of these attitudes conscious will go a long way to turn the tide.
The “what” and the “why” of the situation is that embracing diversity is the evolutionary adaptation required of all human beings in this century.
The “who” is you, because this kind of deep self-confrontation must come from the top. And it is going to rock you to your core to embrace difference when it is far more comfortable to surround yourself with people who are just like you. You will have to go deep down inside yourself to redo what comes naturally to you and find the truth that will enlarge your world.
But there are landmines to avoid, because the “how” of diversity can prove elusive even with the best intentions.
As business leaders, you may look for similarities – but overlook differences. For example, a company’s new CEO made diversity a top priority. He recruited a senior woman from a competitor to head a newly created division and put her on the traditionally all-male executive board. But after a couple of years, the number of women in leadership roles had actually decreased and no other women had been named to the executive board.
In this example, a review of the exit interviews of women who had left revealed not just the usual issues of salaries and promotions, but the discriminatory behaviour of the senior woman who had been recruited by the CEO. Senior male leaders all spoke highly of her, remarking about her intelligence, her bawdy sense of humour and that she was not down on men. In fact, that was true, with the addition that she was actually down on women. She laughed when questioned about why no other female candidates were accepted to the executive board and said: “I would never allow one of those women to spoil my relationship with my brothers!”
The CEO had wrongly assumed that adding a woman to the executive board would be good for the women of his firm, but the one he picked had made a career of being “the only woman” and wanted to keep it that way, so enhancing diversity was not her priority.
A problem occurs when leaders make the assumption that similarities should override differences, and then make the second assumption that all minority group members are the same – see things the same way and want the same things. Individual differences are critical, but they are lost on us when we are so anxious to avoid the big differences among people that we focus only on what is comfortably familiar.
In this situation, the assumption was made that all women are the same and so any one of them appointed to the board would suffice, especially this one, who was in many ways, more similar to the male members of the board than to any of the women she was supposed to support. But it gets more complex.
If we are not conscious of what our individual prejudices are or might be, we may not realize how much attention we direct toward the differences between ourselves and others. We may seek them out with a vengeance to assure ourselves that the “other” is not like us, so that we can remain safe.
Instead, we must look for the meaningful similarities we share with others that will help us overlook unessential differences. To do this properly, we must be conscious of what it is that we carry that influences how we are looking at people and situations. Unless we do the work, we will get it wrong.
You and your corporate culture must create an unrelenting commitment to consciousness around this issue. Without awareness on a micro level, there can be no real inclusion. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (2013, 163) cautions us: “The dynamism of any diverse community depends not only on the diversity itself, but on promoting a sense of belonging among those who formerly would have been considered and felt themselves outsiders.”
Hand in glove
When we become comfortable with our essential sameness, our basic humanness, then we can delight in our wonderful differentness. Ultimately, our inclusion must be wide enough to embrace the vital individual differences among us as well, that must not be obscured by colour or nationality. It is this uniqueness that is created, not only by our heritage, our race, our religion, our gender, our sexual orientation, our generation, but also by our own personalities, styles and expressions of where we have come from, that must not be sacrificed.
Dr Maya Angelou (1990) observes that we “allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, alone in genders”. Leaders can work against this using consciousness as their antidote
If we are going to create sustainable trade and exchange that benefits all parties, if we are going to take up the responsibility to eliminate poverty and the shortages of food and water, if we are willing to admit that what we do today in New York will have repercussions in Shanghai and Mumbai tomorrow, then we will be “the citizens of the world” that leadership expert Peter Drucker (1993) advised us to become, in order to create a successful, globalized knowledge economy.
With a globalized economy comes the need for the capacity to relate to people from different worlds, who look and act in ways that are different from you. If you and your workforce cannot match those differences with openness and curiosity and respect, your competitors will. The best way to achieve that edge is to ensure you have a workforce that understands, through its own experience, how to communicate and relate and negotiate across difference. These are the people who will bring life, true creativity and innovation to business.
Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs (1996) summed this up: “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
What you don’t know can hurt you
The reason I am most frequently consulted for executive coaching is not a lack of intelligence or ability, but because the client exhibits a lack of self-awareness. Leaders must be open to self-knowledge and to how they are actually perceived by others to avoid fantasies and delusions. Most people have the same issues throughout their lives and it is vital that leaders know how to handle their own.
Take the deep dive into your life and work experiences, ask for feedback and answer these questions about yourself:
1) What is your personal story – family, socio-economic roots, work history – and how has it affected you?
2) What incidents from your past are you still reacting to?
3) What pain, injustice or anger do you cling to?
4) What memories, fantasies, obsessions, biases, fears and other emotions influence your decisions and behaviours?
5) What are your strengths and weaknesses?
6) How do others perceive you? Do they respect or fear you?
7) What is your Achilles heel? What may affect your judgement, limit your vision, sabotage your aspirations, impact your relationships and weaken your confidence? Is this vulnerability something that other people know about you, but you remain blind to?
8) What pretensions do you use to distance or protect yourself?
True self-knowledge is power; the lack of it is self-deception that will always leave you powerless and vulnerable to others. The more you can make what is unconscious conscious and know the whole story about yourself, the more you can act in your own best interests.
Consciousness at work
Consciousness requires that you become awake and that you stay wide awake and alert to business practices that are not conscious.
1) Make sure your people really understand the “why” of what they’re doing. It should be a conscious reason. You cannot have a conscious workforce if you teach them not to know why, or not to question the why, especially by your own example.
2) Give and get feedback. Your organization needs functioning systems wherein employees on all levels can give their opinions about what works and what doesn’t, without fear of retribution. Make feedback into an honest dialogue.
3) Be willing to give feedback yourself about systems or policies or procedures that do not readily make sense to you. Having the courage to ask the “stupid” questions makes you a smart and trusted leader.
4) When you are having a conversation with someone, listen deeply. Don’t think about what you want to say next or where you are going for dinner.
5) Become comfortable with not knowing. Not wanting to appear vulnerable to ask a question, or to say that you do not know the answer to something, is one of the traps a leader can fall into that will limit his effectiveness.
Shelley Reciniello is a psychologist and author of The Conscious Leader. She has spent her 34 year career as a psychologist determined “to give psychology away,” by demystifying psychological and psychoanalytic principles, and providing people and organizations with thoughtful, practical information and methods to change their lives.