Laura Morrissey: Psychological battles faced in leadership

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Laura Morrissey highlights the challenges of conquering unconscious bias and cognitive deception in the workplace to develop leaders and manage talent.

Being a leader has various definitions. The question of what makes a good leader is one that has been up for debate in and out of workplace situations. One thing that often makes a successful leader is that they as an individual have decided that they are someone who has what it takes to lead. More than just ‘being bossy,’ influential leaders use different techniques to tap into opinion. It has been claimed that those who make the most suggestions are seen amongst their colleagues as the most competent. This also works with voicing the same opinion three times over.  The view of the group in question becomes almost as though the idea was voiced by three separate individuals.

This is just one example of psychological conditioning that we see in the work place. If such a simple technique can be so authoritative as the repetition of ideas, there are many other reactions of the brain that leaders can both learn and look out for in order to understand behaviours within their team and how they themselves likely carry unconscious bias that needs to be minimised to utilise talent.

Spotting Lies and Deception

What is a lie? Lies can vary in severity and the word is not always clearly defined. Essentially it is the purposeful communication of false information which can be expressed explicitly, exaggerated or due to the omission of information.

At work, your employees or colleagues probably lie to you a lot. If we all told the truth all the time it’s likely work just wouldn’t get done. Let’s take “how are you?” as an example.  “Fine thanks” “good how are you?” are the responses we expect to receive and most of the time do, because if someone answered with something different: the truth, a distraction may be presented.

We ‘lie’ at work for lots of reasons: social filtering, self protection, privacy, shyness etc . If in a leadership role, it is necessary to be good at spotting when someone isn’t being truthful. Not so you can call them out and accuse them of being a liar, but so you can understand why they might not have been truthful and put this into context within the business.

In the media we see lots of examples as to what it is to be a dishonest person; from politicians to criminals to adulterous celebrities from all walks of life. Long have we as humans been fascinated by dishonesty. Lies in society have always carried a stigma. Methods for distinguishing and punishing lies have gone from the persecution of women with ducking stools in the 12th century through to 17th century to new present day technology such as upcoming embodied avatars.

Psychoanalysts Salman Akhtar and Henri Parens have compiled work on the subject of lying. They recorded that lying is not always simply narcissism but stemming as far back from classical analysis from Aristotle lying can allow a person to ‘critically retain the capacity to empathise with the norms and ordering of values within his culture.’ So, lying takes place in a context according to a particular cultural or subjective perspective and requires reflection and reassessment.

The skill of detection of lies in the workplace requires you as leader to take into context the intention and history of a person. Techniques we hear about, such as ‘a lack of eye contact indicates a lie has been told’ don’t hold much weight. Instead, a leader should pin down what a person is really feeling and their long term motives. Undertaking this kind of analysis of individuals can not only help leaders spot when and why they could be lying, but also used to advantage when employing persuasion techniques. If you know what makes someone tick, you know what will motivate them.

Unconscious Bias and Talent Management

An important part of leadership is to manage your talent well; from the initial recruitment process to re-shuffling a team or giving someone a long-awaited promotion, the decisions that you make could potentially make or break a team.

You may see yourself as the least prejudiced of people; inclusive, open and friendly. It’s very likely that you are all of these things. However, employers often fall into a trap. Let’s take the example of an advertised vacancy. Responses are received from many suitable candidates from a range of ages and backgrounds. In most cases leaders end up choosing someone that reminds them of themselves. This isn’t always based on appearance. It can also be based on experiences, activities they enjoy, mannerisms and backgrounds. Even the most open-minded leader can fall into this trap.

Let’s look at the figures. Project Implicit ran a ‘race bias’ test between 2003 and 2013 with 2.5 million people involved across Europe and the USA. Figures showed that minorities are under- represented at every level but especially within management positions. What is even more surprising than this is that those aged 18-24 (future leadership material) showed more bias than any other age group. Talent can come in any shape or form; from any country, economic background or range of interests. Instead, we get caught up endlessly in seeing one demographic only dominate the workplace.

Nowadays, we know enough about the human brain to know that there is no such thing as the non-judgemental human. In fact, we are only ever in control of a small part of our brains. The brain can make snap decisions without permission and those in leadership must be aware of their unconscious bias. Leader s must start to actively work against exclusion, starting with themselves but then let this diffuse throughout the organisation by making diversity of all kinds, the new normal.

To do this differently, the right qualities needed for each job must be disentangled, as with the intentions and outcomes of these qualities. Often, leaders make decisions without doing this and although serious about finding talent, without being aware of their own unconscious bias, will limit themselves and the organisation with the choices they make.

 

Author Bio:

Laura Morrissey is a writer for Disc Assessment. She shares tips for both employers and employees in working to the best of their ability together. Her specialist areas are motivation and team building.

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