Given the rewards that most corporate leaders receive these days (an average of over £3million plus bonuses) you might think this is a stupid question when the average wage is around £27,200 ($41,840).
However Roger Jones, a consultant, says ‘Leaders’ unconscious personal fears affect their performance, that of their team, and that of their company‘ according to Carly Chynoweth’s column in the Sunday Times business section.
The number 1 fear, according to the Academy of Chief Executives, is the fear of being found out – or imposter syndrome.
Other fears include worrying about being able to repeat past successes, not living up to past successes in a family business, and losing friends as they get promoted (did no-one tell them it can be lonely at the top?).
These fears can lead to bad decision-making and a loss of perspective. They may also result in poor inter-personal behaviours such as rudeness, problems with anger management, and lack of consistency with their teams.
Unfortunately for the business such behaviours can be emulated by junior staff who think its OK to do it because the CEO does it.
60% of the leaders questioned in Jones’ research (published in the HBR) said their executive teams were affected by fear, that there was an absence of honest conversations, excessive politicking, and a willingness to tolerate bad behaviour.
Executive search companies say they see these behaviours with newly promoted executives at second or third tier. A partner at one of them believes that the growth of psychometric testing might eventually identify those with problematic traits so they can be dealt with where possible (The Hogan series of psychometrics includes on which identifies elements of the dark side triad i.e. sociopathy, narcissism, and machiavellinism).
Jones is also optimistic. “Most leaders can manage their fears. Those who are self-aware are more understanding of what dysfunctional behaviours they may have and they can try to prevent them happening”.
One of the most effective approached is helping leaders develop their emotional intelligence – from improving self-awareness and self-control to managing relationships better.
Of course a lot depends on the culture of the organisation. If your company has an open and helping culture where feedback is freely and honestly exchanged some of these issues might never arise.
And there is some evidence that CEOs who are more guilt-prone can make better leaders.
Many smart professionals don’t do as well as expected and plateau in their careers because they get anxious about their performance which impedes their progress.
That’s according to Thomas J & Sarah DeLong in an article called “The Paradox of Excellence” (HBR of June 2011). The Harvard professor and his psychiatrist daughter say many high performers would rather do the wrong things well than do the right things badly. Because they are used to success they may shy away from really testing opportunities because they carry risk or require new skills and would rather preserve their image.
High achievers are often independent-minded and don’t easily ask for help and people may tell them what they think they want to hear anyway. So the trick is to have a good support network that will give you honest and constructive feedback.
We know leaders often move on before they experience failure so are not prepared for it and don’t learn from it – cynics might say they move on before they are found out. The DeLongs suggest that you need to expose yourself to new learning experiences that make you feel uncertain or even incompetent and to remember these are temporary feelings and can lead to greater professional ability. That all sounds admirable but I wonder if that is really possible when share values seem to rule corporate decision-making?
They also identify behaviours that can help you succeed but also get in the way. They say classic high achievers are:
driven to get results – but may be so involved that they don’t let colleagues know what they are doing and think helping others is a waste of time
doers- they believe nobody else can do things as well as they. They make poor delegators and may micromanage
highly motivated – but because they take all aspects of their job seriously may not distinguish between what is urgent and what is important
need positive feedback – they care what others think but may obsess over criticism
competitive – but may be obsessed with comparisons with others leading to a sense of insufficiency
passionate about work – but intense highs can be followed by crippling lows
safe risk takers – they won’t damage the company by risky moves but may shy away from the unknown and miss opportunities
guilt-ridden – they are driven to produce but no matter what they accomplish may feel they aren’t doing enough
The DeLongs are describing leaders and professionals who are behaving more cautiously then they should and thereby hampering their careers.
On the opposite side of the coin there are those who over-do their strengths and begin to demonstrate the dark side of their personalities, often with devastating results for themselves and people around them.
And they are not the first to suggest that leaders should show their weaknesses. Goffee and Morgan made the same point, also in HBR, in 2000 although they cautioned that leaders should do so selectively.
And while it’s usually female leaders who suffer most from “imposter syndrome” – and some women might argue that many men lack the self-awareness to even think they might not be up to the job – that’s not necessarily true any more. Amelia Hill in The Observer (2010) revealed that about 50% of men feel anxious most of the time – especially around women – and most often at work.
HAS ANYTHING CHANGED IN THE LAST 5 YEARS SINCE I FIRST WROTE THIS POST?
“Feeling like a fraud“, was the heading for an article on Imposter Syndrome in the Psychologist (Vol 23 No 5 May 2010). The author describes it as having 3 components:
- you feel that other people have an inflated perception of your capabilities,
- you worry about being “found out”, and
- you attribute your success to external factors such as” being in the right place at the right time”.
This condition may typically take hold when you are starting a new job and worrying about making a good impression. I have seen this often when working with executives coaching them through their first 100 days.
It seems almost everyone can experience the feeling of being incompetent at times and comparing themselves with others they consider better performers doesn’t help. They might be better examining their own feelings about being successful and why they might self-sabotage.
When I first wrote this male confidence was apparently at a low and with no strong real-life role models men were resorting to fictional characters, lucky charms, lucky socks, lucky pants, and alcohol according to an article in The Guardian.
Or do you always see the down-side? And can you do anything about it if you do?
Michael Mosley is presenting a BBC2 Horizon programme this week, 10 July at 21.00: “the Truth about Personality”
He was suffering from insomnia, and worrying all the time so he decided he would investigate the latest ideas on personality and see whether or not he could become more optimistic.
A psychologist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, Professor Elaine Fox, believes that our basic drives are reflected in our patterns of brain activity which determine how we see the world.
She tested Mosley’s brain activity levels and found that he had more activity on the right side of the frontal cortex than the left, which has been found in other studies to be associated with higher levels of pessimism, neuroticism, and anxiety. She then got him to take a test to show whether he had an unconscious bias towards happy or angry faces by responding to flashing dots behind the faces. The results confirmed his bias towards pessimism.
The question was could he do anything about it? Twin studies show that there is a degree of heritability in personality of up to 50%. The rest is down to random factors or the environment including whether or not the genes are switched on in response to life events and the environment (what is called epigenetics). Serious life events can not only trigger depression and anxiety but can alter genes to make people more vulnerable later in life.
He did two things: first he practised mindfulness every day for 20 minutes; secondly he used Cognitive Bias Modification using a computer programme which presented 15 blank or angry faces with 1 happy face. He had to practise finding the happy face to train his body to look for positive images.
Previous research in America involving over 1,000 people showed that optimistic people lived on average 7.5 years longer than pessimists.
Mental attitude was more important than any other factor according to the researchers at Yale. So this is clearly something we should take seriously.
So would you push someone under a train if it would save 5 other people? Probably not if you are on antidepressants according to research at Cambridge University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in New Scientist recently; “Take antidepressants and you’ll be a soft touch”.
An antidepressant citalopram, which raises your serotonin levels (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI), was administered to 24 healthy volunteers who were then given this moral dilemma. Compared to other volunteers given a placebo they were 10% less likely to inflict harm on someone. In another experiment the drugged volunteers were more likely to accept unfair treatment than punish the other person’s greed.
The researchers pointed out that antidepressants are the most widely prescribed class of drugs (in the USA) so it’s important to investigate their effects on users’ social behaviour and moral judgement.
But what if instead you asked people to clean themselves or think clean thoughts?
Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that asking people to clean their hands with antiseptic wipes or priming them to feel clean by reading passages about how clean they felt had the same effect ie they made harsher moral judgements on a range of social issues including pornography and littering than those who were primed to feel dirty or who didn’t follow the cleaning procedure.
The researchers concluded that: “Acts of cleanliness not only have the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgement of others“.
And if you are a woman and you think you are too trusting, a drop of testosterone could increase your guardedness. Researchers in the Netherlands and South Africa placed a drop of testosterone on women’s tongues and asked them to judge the trustworthiness of a series of male faces.
They also asked other women to whom they gave a placebo, then repeated the experiment but swapped the treatment. Women who had just been given testosterone were less trustful of the men than those given the placebo. And the effect was more pronounced amongst women who were normally more trustful. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol 107 No 22)
Makes you wonder about juries or other situations where people judge others – not just so-called talent shows but more mundane things like selection panels or performance reviews.
Updated 6 January 2011: Having sweat samples hung under your nose in teabags sounds like something only a psychologist would devise. But it showed that when people are anxious they release a chemical signal that is detectable at an unconscious level by those nearby.
Participants were exposed to sweat from both anxious and non-anxious participants without knowing which was which. When exposed to anxious sweat they took longer but made riskier decisions.
Haegler ‘s research in Neuropsychologia showed that the participants rated both kinds of sweat equally unpleasant and couldn’t consciously tell the difference. Earlier research had shown that sweat collected from an anxious person triggered extra activity in emotion-related brain areas.
Haegler wondered if the perception of emotional chemical signals might alert individuals to danger but said that the results certainly suggested that; “anxiety in humans can be communicated through chemical senses unconsciously”.