Jane’s story is one I hear all-too-often when I talk to business leaders. She was thriving in her department head role; a much-respected member of the team who prided herself on collaborative leadership. Then she got promoted and, within a month, wanted to leave.
Her 100-strong team had thrived under her leadership. They had increased their productivity, got a reputation for successful innovation, had reduced absenteeism, and had the lowest staff turnover rates in the company.
Jane was rewarded with a promotion to Director level. And her life changed, forever.
Within days she found herself at the bottom of an unspoken hierarchy, with politics so entrenched that open hostility was not uncommon. And the only way to get anything done was by currying favour with the ‘right’ people and second-guessing what would appease them – even flattering their egos.
She became painfully aware that a single wrong word could blot her proverbial copybook and jeopardise not just her career, but the success of the teams that reported to her.
Jane learned how to walk on eggshells. She developed emergency masks and armour to take with her into meetings with fellow Directors. She discovered that shouting at each other and criticising was normal behaviour, supposed to be shrugged off over the next golf game. “Don’t be so sensitive!” would be thrown at her if she showed any emotional reaction to comments she felt certain were intended to undermine her.
Her working life transformed from focusing on how to get the best from each member of her team to protecting them – and herself – from territory grabs and criticism. Her old ways of working weren’t cutting it any more. Her new boss – the CEO – told her to laugh it off and get on with things, making it clear that he had taken a risk in promoting her and he expected her to perform.
Within a month, the stress this caused was spilling into her home life and affecting her health. She knew she had a choice: to make the masks and armour permanent, shutting down how she felt about it, or to leave. She knew she didn’t belong in that closed club.
Results from the 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study show a clear pattern in UK leadership: that women who make it to the most senior levels are expected to lead like men.
The research shows that men and women both experience Imposter Syndrome to a similar extent, but that men handle it differently – by pushing down those emotions, pretending everything is fine, and pushing on through.
The research is indicating that the more senior a woman gets in a medium or large-sized company, the less she expresses her emotions. The more likely she is to behave like a man. Interviews with women at this level indicate that this was often a choice that they made, in order to survive and succeed, or a natural trait.
These interviews confirm there is a widely held belief that the only place for a woman who know whow to healthily experience and express emotions is HR.
It seems that businesses are encouraging open-hearted leadership, but only up to a certain level, after which the glass ceiling only lets through leaders who are expected to conform to the masculine model, regardless of their gender.
The very attributes that made these women such inspirational leaders were actively discouraged, once they reached the most senior positions.
Management theory from the eighties is still rife in British Board rooms – the belief that people’s performance is separate from other aspects of their life – that emotions and family issues, for example, can be left at home. This is confirmed by the fact that ‘staff well-being’ is an add-on function that is often delegated to one of the more junior members of an HR department, rather than being seen as an integral part of every manager’s role.
And the leaders who are behaving in the way that Jane experienced have little awareness of how this will be affecting their direct reports or the company’s wider teams. They are ok with it and can shake it off, but they don’t realise that being yelled at or humiliated in a meeting in front of your peers can be hugely damaging to a more junior member of staff.
The advent of discussions about Emotional Intelligence (EI) are, thankfully, starting to create changes, but it’s not enough and it’s certainly not fast enough. It could take a full generation to fill our Board rooms with emotionally intelligent leaders – and there’s a strong risk that many of them will have shut down these traits in order to conform and survive, before they get there.
They used to say that businesses were built around their processes. And, as a former engineer (Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma specialist), I can agree with that – to a certain extent. But those were the days before we really understood how people tick.
Nowadays, any smart CEO knows that the processes are what allow them to build their business around their people.
And people need to be treated like people, not emotion-free robots.
One of the fastest ways to kill creativity and innovation is with fear. When people feel scared – even the low-level worry about whether they will get into trouble for suggesting something or taking a risk – it triggers the body’s stress response. This sets off the primal fight-flight-freeze mechanism that protects us from sabre-toothed tigers.
It also diverts blood flow from the pre-frontal cortex area of your brain that has brilliant ideas and sends it to the primal part that is more comfortable with fire-fighting. If this low-level fear and anxiety is part of a company’s culture (and this is incredibly wide-spread), then it can lead to hyper-vigilance and chronic stress in employees, as they look to protect themselves from the perceived threat of the senior management team’s behaviour.
Even if people manage to ‘push this down’ and pretend they’re ok, it will affect productivity, reduce innovation, slow down projects, cause team conflict, health issues, anxiety and even loss of star performers who don’t want to put up with what feels like a toxic environment.
The pace of change in business has never been faster than the past ten years, when we look at how technology has changed the way we work. And the new wave of workers starting out their careers are struggling more with mental health and stress than those of us further through the process, with social-media-derived ‘comparisonitis’ meaning many struggle with self-doubt and Imposter Syndrome.
Now, more than ever, we need leaders to step up to the next level – to move beyond even Emotional Intelligence.
In a world where AI threatens to dominate the workplace, leaders need to move beyond EI, to allow their teams to thrive.
Business leaders need to lose their fear of the F-word if we want our businesses to thrive: Feelings aren’t something that should be the preserve of the well-being person in HR.
There are other ways to get great results than bullying and scaring people – wearing your authority like a badge of honour for having made it to the top of an organisation.
If you ask someone to leave their feelings at the door, when they get to the office, then you are only allowing a tiny part of that person to work in your business. You’re denying their intuition. You’re curtailing their creativity. You’re asking them to pretend to be some they are not – to wear a mask.
And that has direct costs not just for the employee, but for the business.
There are two main types of leadership:
Leading from love or leading from fear.
The recent Brexit process has been a classic example of leading from fear:
- Government whips used threats of deselection and even dishing ‘dirt’ on MPs to bully them into toeing the party line
- Ears, minds and hearts were closed to any form of genuine discussion
- Insults and ridicule were the primary means of communication
Conversely, leading from love could have created a very different ‘present’ for us:
- Genuinely wanting to understand the opposing point of view, even if you don’t agree with it
- Inspiring people to follow your ideas, rather than scaring them into it
- Finding out what was important to people, to get them to buy into your vision and put their effort into creating something wonderful, together
Leading from fear is the norm under which millions of British employees are working, every day. They find their coping strategies to be able to get through. But there’s no way we should be pretending that they are performing at their peak under such conditions – or sharing their inner genius gifts with their employer.
The thing is that happy people don’t behave the way these bullying leaders are behaving. As the Native American Indians say:
“All criticism is borne of someone else’s pain.”
So the leaders Jane found herself working with were very unlikely to be happy people. They were likely to be running strong inner critic patterns, with high levels of self-judgement and even Imposter Syndrome.
When people are in this place of inner pain (which we often deny, as a coping mechanism), they are more likely to be irritable, perfectionists, micro managers, short-tempered, and critical of those around them.
And this is why we need to move beyond Emotional Intelligence to leading from your heart in a head-based world.
Our leaders need to be doing the ‘inside work’ that helps them to get past the negative self-talk that risks them projecting their inner pain onto others. They need support in clearing the hidden limiting beliefs, fears and blocks that cause them to shut down their feelings and to require those around them to do the same, in order to fit in and survive. They need to become the leader they were born to be, leading from their heart, whilst still delivering the results that a head-based world expects.
Imagine a world where a leader could sit in a meeting and admit they had a brilliant idea, but had been reluctant to voice it because, say, Imposter Syndrome had just come up. How might them being open about their feelings help everyone else to feel more supported? How might that shift the way teams felt safe to take risks and to innovate? How might this level of real leadership, openness and authenticity help with the company’s bottom line?
True leaders lead with the whole of who they are, not just their heads. And they aren’t afraid to use the F-word.
“Can there ever be such a thing as a ‘compassionate CEO’?” is a question a client of mine asked me recently.
My reply? If we want businesses to survive and thrive in the coming decades, that needs to become the new normal.
If you’d like to talk about how leading from your heart in a head-based world might become your business’ superpower, here’s my calendar to book a call.
And here’s why this is even more important now, with lockdown plus Imposter Syndrome creating a perfect storm for burnout, and what we can do to prevent it.
Want More Like This? Get Clare's Monthly Inspiration For Business Leaders
PS Spam stinks. You will only receive my monthly newsletter, plus occasional updates on our research studies and relevant events. You can opt out at any time.