The Perils of Unconscious Leadership
Successful leaders get the best out of their people. How they do this varies between individuals, but good emotional intelligence is a key part of the equation.Leaders with low emotional intelligence create unhealthy environments where their staff are more likely to resort to unhelpful, more child-like behaviours learnt while young to survive in their families and the playground. As Anton Obholzer, a leading psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, observes, people bring to work “their unconscious experiences of life in the form of the emotional lenses through which they see the world”. This can create havoc in terms of performance, collaboration and productivity. So, if leaders feel that they are not getting the best versions of their people, they should examine whether they can do more to encourage individuals and teams to stay in “adult” mode.
By adult mode, I am referring to when we access our prefrontal cortex; i.e our rational brain, where we think clearly, and respond to the here and now. When people are triggered, when they feel anger, stress or other heightened emotions, the body activates its alarm system, producing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, to help them, metaphorically, run away from tigers. When this happens, our emotional brain takes over, making us more likely to default to the coping mechanisms we formed from earlier childhood experiences. When this happens, we see adult employees regress to a more child- like mode, responding as ifthey are back in their family dynamic or the school playground, the antithesis of a healthy workplace.
Psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Dr. Jeremy Holmes believes the process of interpreting the world can be understood as a meeting point of external data and internal stories. He describes a process of data coming in through the senses (bottom-up approach), which then collides with our existing assumptions and beliefs about the world (top-down approach). He suggests that when we are stressed or experiencing heightened emotions our internal stories become the dominant voice. This is also the case when we are faced with information ‘blanks’ – that is when our default position has less data coming in to correct it. It explains why periods of turbulence and uncertainty – such as the experience of the pandemic – can lead us to project our existing anxieties and fears onto the current situation. In a work context, it is why remote working can be more stressful for people, as there is less data to counter their internal stories. Poor communication, a lack of feedback or infrequent performance reviews can cause employees to autofill and assume the worst. This is exacerbated if a leader’s own emotional dysregulation starts to leak and they snap, sound cross, jump to blame or use sarcasm.
Another psychological mechanism that occurs under stress is projection. When confronted by difficult situations, or feelings that we struggle to process or understand, we often unconsciously project the uncomfortable feelings on to others. For example, in schools, COVID has led many parents to move their children to a different school or adopt a punishing, angry attitude towards their Headteachers – blaming them for the wider situation. This can become contagious – so the anxiety is passed around. In an environment where anxiety is rife, the projection and taking up of other people’s anxiety becomes commonplace. Another example may be where a leader is stressed and is being pushed for results, they then pass this on unhelpfully to their team.
When people cannot regulate difficult emotions the work place becomes more like a playground, with the aggrieved boss often complaining that staff are behaving like children. The Karpman Drama Triangle describes how as children, we learn to play the roles of victim, rescuer or persecutor, depending on our relationship to our carers and then others. A healthy adult environment will encourage us to leave these defaults behind, and respond to individual situations as they arrive. But when we are triggered and put under pressure, we are more likely to unconsciously repeat old behaviours and invite others to play along. Feeling persecuted by a boss can make an employee feel like a victim, so that they then switch to persecuting others as a way of managing.
Leaders who struggle to regulate their own emotions or do not understand their own knee-jerk roles and behaviours, unconsciously draw those around them into these unhelpful dramas. It can lead to a team or an organisation unconsciously playing out their own internal stories, unmoored from the present moment. It is not about blaming leaders and I believe we are all to differing extents burdened by the coping mechanisms of our past. However, recognising and facing up to the dynamics at play is a necessary step to lighten the baggage and reach out for the right support.
So, what can leaders do? They need to create environments where people are helped to stay in adult mode and be better versions of themselves. Regular performance management meetings, SMART objectives, well delivered feedback, learning how to have difficult conversations; these can all prevent internal dramas taking over. This demands excellent communication skills and the leader’s ability to regulate their and others’ emotions. Good leadership is predicated by understanding your own internal world and your autofill in order to help you lead others. Therapy or psychodynamically informed coaching can help a leader better understand themselves, and well delivered psychoeducational workshops often provide useful skills to help teams analyse their day-to-day interaction.
The stakes are high. A leader with poor EQ can unwittingly resurface people’s childhood behaviours with potentially damaging effects on their emotional and mental health. A sound leader with high EQ can provide a new experience, in which their team is lifted out of their old ways even in the most stressful moments. This goes beyond simply improving performance and demonstrates the powerful ripple effect that supported, and supportive, leaders can have.
Leanne Hoffman HealthyMinds@Work
 Anton Obholzer, Workplace Intelligence Unconscious Forces and How to Manage Them (Book)
 Jeremy Holmes, The Brain has a Mind of its Own: Attachment, Neurobiology and the New Science of Psychotherapy
 The Karpman Triangle Explained, Chris West.
 Psychodynamic Coaching is Coaching delivered by psychodynamic psychotherapists who use therapeutic tools and models to help clients develop a deeper understanding of their own and others emotional world and how this influences behaviour, relationships performance and development. See https://healthymindsatwork.co.uk