Get Out of Your Head to be a Good Leader

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Thinking Man - ShutterstockAs a leader, do you believe your job is all about using your intelligence? I work with a team leader who believes just that. I’ll call him “Martin”, and he manages a team that builds software. He thinks he’s a good leader because he’s really smart. He can recall facts that others have forgotten, he can quickly do math in his head, and he’s very articulate. The problem is that his team hasn’t come up with an innovative idea on how to improve their software in ages. It turns out that the best way to think creatively is to get out of your conscious mind and invoke your subconscious.

The other problem is that Martin’s team is riddled with anxiety. Because Martin is always caught up in his head, he comes across as aloof and uncaring. He’s oblivious to the fact that sometimes he needs to get out of his head and connect with his employees on an emotional level. He doesn’t know that people have a primal need to feel emotionally connected to the people they work with, including their leaders.

According to Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and Mark Leary, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, we all yearn, at a fundamental level, to feel a sense of belonging with other people. This sense of community arises when we experience a personal bond, cemented by care and trust and emotional concern, with our workmates. We want more than a mere work relationship, where we feel only a loose affiliation with our coworkers. When we work with people with whom we don’t feel a strong sense of belonging, we often end up with potent and even toxic negative feelings, including anxiety, unrest, and fear.

These negative emotions spread like wildfire throughout Martin’s organization. Some of his people say all they care about is writing good software, and they claim to be immune to Martin’s shortcomings and their teammates’ negativity. But the fact is that negative emotions spread automatically as each team member unconsciously emulates the facial expressions, body language, and voice intonations of their teammates, and then involuntarily feels the associated emotion. So nobody is immune to the toxic feelings, and nobody’s on top of their game when they’re overtaken by anxiety and fear.

In the same way that teammates pick up each others’ emotions, customers also experience the negativity. Martin’s customers may not know exactly why they feel ill at ease each time they interact with one of his employees, but it’s never a pleasant experience, so they tend to avoid it. Needless to say, this is not good for business.

As a leader, if you think all that matters is your intellect, you need to get out of your head. You’re probably emotionally thwarting the very strategies that your keen intellect envisions. Start by taking a genuine interest in learning more about your employees and engage them in sincere conversation about how they feel about their work. Don’t think of it as idle chitchat because it’s a crucial part of your job. Find ways to satisfy your team’s primal need for emotional connection.

As we learn more from neuroscience and psychology about the incredible power of emotions on business success, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotion to increase innovation and performance, check out the book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance which is published by the American Management Association.

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About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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