The Conscious Leader
We’ve all seen the depressing statistics about employee engagement. People are not fully engaged at work, not happy, not being utilized, and not fully using their talents.
What’s a leader to do?
Dr. Shelley Reciniello is the author of The Conscious Leader: Nine Principles and Practices to Create a Wide-Awake and Productive Workplace, a leadership approach designed to apply psychological tools to improve individuals and corporate culture. She works with senior leaders in a wide variety of fields. She has provided services ranging from employee assistance programs, executive coaching, leadership and diversity training seminars.
What is a conscious leader?
A conscious leader is someone who understands that people don’t leave their psychological selves at home when they come into the workplace and that includes the leader. This kind of leader accepts that all human beings are not rational and that our rational minds are constantly influenced by our unconscious motivations, hidden agendas, unresolved childhood issues, fears, anxieties, fantasies, prejudices, obsessions, and complicated emotions like anger and guilt. Conscious leaders understand that what is going on unconsciously, out of awareness, is often more important than what is happening on the surface. They know that the rational mind, both the individual one and the corporate one, can only be strengthened by dealing with unconscious issues, not by pretending that they don’t exist.
Starting with themselves, conscious leaders seek to make what is unconscious conscious. They want to know the whole story about themselves – what emotional baggage they carry, what defenses they habitually use, how others really see them, what their Achilles’ heels are. They are committed to self-development and increasing self-awareness.
Conscious leaders know that in order to create workplaces where people will want to be, they must understand the psychological principles of people at work and apply them daily.
The Power of Honest Feedback
Give us an example of one way a leader can be more conscious.
A leader who is open to honest feedback is going to really know how others see him or her. They may not like what they hear, but they dig down deep in themselves to understand the root of the behavior in question, and then they can begin to fix it. We have a lot of what we refer to as “narcissistic leaders” — probably the same amount that we have always had, but our culture seems to condone and even admire their grandiosity and bravura. When I work with a leader like that, it is usually because the board or some other entity has insisted that this person curtail their behavior. It is not easy for them to change because they cannot believe that their charisma and success aren’t enough.
I worked with someone like this and I knew that underneath the fascinating façade, he was quite damaged, never felt loved for himself from an early age, so he compensated by creating a larger than life self that he believed would be worthy of love. In the coaching, he worked hard to understand how others saw him and how he made them feel. He began to see what good behavior looked like. So although we couldn’t change the structure of his personality at such a late age, he was able to become conscious of what the right behavior would be and he would mimic it.
He is actively engaged in trying to modify his behavior and his impact on others. He uses techniques like active listening to help him have real conversations with his direct reports. He understands that it isn’t “all about me,” and the discipline it takes for him to listen has been rewarded by the input and ideas that are growing his company. He tells me that he reminds himself of his story every two hours!
Understanding How We Deal With Change
What is one commonly misunderstood psychological principle? How does it relate to organizational leadership?
It is generally acknowledged that more change has occurred in the last decade, largely due to the advances of technology, than at any other time in human history. And there appears to be no end in sight. Principle 8 focuses on the fact that change is a constant in every workplace. Whether the change is initiated by a world event, the marketplace, or comes from within, it will require a particular kind of leadership if it is going to be accepted and implemented on both an organizational and individual level.
Our natural, evolutionary response as human beings is to fear change and to resist it. It represents the unknown and unfamiliar and carries with it the possibility that we will suffer harm. Over time, we have learned that change can also be positive and lead to good things. The complete truth about change is that it is always hydra-headed; it is about both winning and losing. In corporate restructuring, for example, change usually results in two groups, those who will win and stay and those who will lose and leave. But it isn’t as simple as that in reality. For even the people who get to stay often talk about how things were before the restructuring because something was gained but something was also lost.
My mentor, Harry Levinson, used to say it this way: “All change is loss, and all loss must be mourned.” When we do not allow for the mourning appropriate to the occurrence, successful change is jeopardized. Mourning seems like a natural thing to do. Think about the crying and other shows of sentimentality at any high school or college graduation. If leaders jump the gun and demand the swift, dispassionate adherence to change, resistance will kick in and there will be corporate consequences. The recent recession brought dire economic consequences to many, accompanied by anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicide. The extent of the changes that occurred, and the speed with which they happened, did not give people the time and resources they needed to adjust to their drastically altered circumstances.
A swift-moving, action-oriented business model leaves little time for people, whether they are going or staying, to readjust and acclimate to a changed environment. No one is immune and everyone feels vulnerable. The unspoken contract between employer and employee, and the trust that goes with it, are forever broken.
The Family Dynamic at Work
You talk about how the family dynamic rears its head in the workplace. Why is this? What can be done about it?
The déjà vu of the workplace is a real phenomenon because corporations and other entities have structures like families. There are authority figures who become the parents, and our peers and co-workers become the siblings. Transference doesn’t only happen in therapy or in coaching. It happens at work. We project onto the people we work with qualities from old relationships, or from relationships that live only in our fantasies, like an idealized father-daughter connection where none had existed. They, in turn, may experience a counter-transference, wherein they become or resist what we are projecting upon them.
What it comes down to is that working with others inspires us to recreate relationship patterns we have known in the past or wanted in the past. These relationships can be positive or negative. They can be triggered by something that is actually occurring, but they are usually unrelated in reality to what is going on in the present interaction. The workplace can provide the opportunity; it sets the stage and shines the lights, but we create the roles and write the dialogue.
If there ever was a reason for a leader to become conscious, and to create a conscious workplace, it would be to eliminate these costly, and painful, repetitions and re-enactments of family ties. Clearly, transference is built into leadership. People look to someone who is powerful to solve problems, make promises, and create possibilities—to be someone who will deliver them out of the wilderness. But if the transference is excessive, if the need is too great, something dangerous can happen. That is when people follow leaders who can encourage them to violate their previously held values.
If you are a leader, think about your style and whether or not you encourage transference. What are your fantasies about the people who work for you? What is your counter-transference? How do you think of them? What do you call them? Are they your kids, or your other kids? Are they your troops or your guys (in the generic sense)? Are they your people or your team? Folks? Minions? Girls and boys?
How seductive are you with them? And I don’t mean in a sexual way, although that may be an unconscious component. Being charismatic has its responsibilities. They should want to follow you and your star, but it should be for their good as well as yours.
You want to be clear with your employees about the actual relationships that you have with them so as not to feed their imaginations. It is easy to take advantage of people in the workplace, so keeping appropriate boundaries is essential, and you should encourage a culture that is alert to not giving mixed messages.
People = Results
What do you say to the business-minded leader who says, “Dr. Reciniello, I just want to focus on results, on the numbers. If people have problems or need psychoanalysis, that’s not a company problem”?
I would answer by saying that, “You may know your business, have brilliant ideas, and an eager workforce, but if you don’t know what happens to people – and that includes you – when they enter the workplace, you will undoubtedly waste time, money, and minimize your success.”
Corporations are not people, but they are made up of people, and to ignore the imperfect humanness of their professional interactions is a foolish omission that will always undermine success and satisfaction. With everything that goes into making a successful business—talent, persistence, hard work, personal sacrifice, financial investment—to not account for interference that can come from unconscious intentions, actions, and behaviors would be a tragedy.
If you are a leader, a manager, or a supervisor, if you have anyone who reports to you, as we have been discussing, you are an authority figure on whom projections will be placed. By virtue of your authority, you have the responsibility of knowing that you really don’t know who works for you and all that has led up to this moment when they report to you.
It is not your job to know, only to realize that you do not know. Your responsibility is to stay on target. Don’t muddy the waters. When things seem off, you ask for clarification, you reinstate boundaries. You help people to remember why they are here, what their role is, what they contribute to the organization. You root them in the present reality, no more, and no less.
And above all, know yourself, and what is unfinished in your life, and how you may involve others in it. It can be very subtle, and you may be well-intentioned, but it may stir things up for someone. You can counter the onslaught of those feelings and fantasies by consistently and frequently clarifying the contract. You instate policies and procedures that communicate how people succeed, get promoted, make more money, and fulfill ambitions in your organization, and you make sure those systems work. The more based in reality your contact with them is, the more conscious they will stay of the true relationship that exists between you.
When leaders allow themselves to focus on the humanness of their days and of their organizations, they accomplish much more than by attending only to the business issues. The real bottom line is that people with emotional and psychological lives underlie every business interaction, decision, success, and failure. Leaving that out of the equation is bad business.