Even without the cameras, we feel we have control over our lives and our interactions with others. We orchestrate how we wish to be seen, believing people see what we intend. People in our lives aren’t mirrors, they have their own interpretations of us, and our intentions. Sometimes based on their conscious reactions, and more often how they “feel” about us. There is a disconnect between what we project and how we are received, and the majority of the time, we don’t know it. Thus, our actions might not be quite as self-determined as we think. Maybe we don’t possess the free will, we believe we do.
Consider 1998’s The Truman Show, with Jim Carrey, Laura Linney and Ed Harris. Of course, on the surface, it seemed to be all about the TV show that was Truman Burbank’s life and the revelation that he was merely part of millions of viewers’ entertainment all along. A sad and cruel joke on an affable, unwitting main character.
More revelatory than a movie about a reality TV show, before CBS’s Survivor’s first season in 2000, was that every move Truman made was being watched. His entire life was scripted. As he traveled through his day, his movements became predictable, in a world where the way people perceived him (as they were directed to) would guide him to the next step – or adventure. He took cues from his environment and acted accordingly. We enjoyed the movie for the surreal premise but were also relieved that his experience of pre-destination wasn’t ours. This is where cinema parallels reality, as it often does.
We move through our lives with the distinct impression we have control of our outcomes and feel strongly that freedom of choice is as important as freedom itself. Because of this we create our personas to navigate the world on our terms. We are assured when things go as planned, and surprised when they don’t. We attribute the positive outcomes with our choices and negative ones with the actions of others, or our environment.
But what if our life choices were predestined, like Truman Burbank, and we were simply along for the ride? What if our plans were being manipulated – by us?
Some of our decisions result in good actions and equally good outcomes, while others seem to bring on difficulty. The more decisions that appear to be right, the more progress one makes in their professional growth. In fact, small lapses in judgment are overlooked when it appears that good behaviors outweigh bad ones. Of course, it is the negative actions that can subvert success, or harm others. These small things – can sabotage success in big ways.
Most leadership training rightfully leans into the strengths of leaders. We are taught to “go with our gut” using training that supports instinctive decision-making as a path to success. The assumption is that in order for someone to take a leadership role, they must have insights that others must not, or see a line to the top of the ladder, that others simply can’t see. Credit is given for those who rose to a perceived position of authority. In a proportion of situations, this is definitely warranted, while in over 70% of people, poor leadership is a daily scenario that plays out repetitively and reveals gaps in success based on certain nonconscious patterns (Ryan Gottfredson, PhD, The Elevated Leader, 2022). Because true instinct is an innate and mostly subconscious pattern of behavior that responds to external stimuli, it is very effective at driving decision making and action taking.
Events in the developmental years of our lives shape our instincts. When negative events cause stress and a trauma response, a neuro-physiological response occurs in our brains that embeds specific behaviors designed to avoid danger. This self-preservation mechanism is very useful in primitive life-threatening situations, yet our modern world isn’t full of such threats and our instinctive actions, steered by nonconscious neural pathways repeatedly arise and create negative social outcomes.
The effects of these trauma-linked behaviors have implications for leaders and their direct reports. Externally, you would expect things like inappropriate interactions, hostility, anger, obsessive or controlling behaviors that ultimately stifle peoples’ creativity, emotions and enjoyment. Personally, they result in lack of trust, fear, frustration and anger. Until the leader becomes aware, the patterns repeat every few months, or years, and their very own work security is affected, leading to unemployment, transition, or turnover of directly reporting employees, and workplace absences.
Naturally, the repetition causes stress and other coping mechanisms arise such as substance abuse, abusive behavior, and even depression and self-harm. This exacerbates the cycle and amplifies future interactions for the worse. The leader, then, becomes the biggest source of employee discord over and over again.
No amount of tactical or strategic training is going to get to the foundation of the biggest challenges with leaders. It takes a methodology that looks deeper into the developmental trauma-informed, neuropsychology of leadership, and a plain-spoken approach that creates nurturing environments where open, risk-free discussion is encouraged and commonplace. When leaders perceive no risk for looking deeper into the causes of the gaps in their emotional intelligence that limit their potential, they become open to foundational improvements that help them elevate.