The Top Four Insights From Psychology That Every Modern Leader Should Know (originally published on Forbes.com)
This article was originally published on Forbes.com - click here to access
Lately, the period of change and crisis seems to be never-ending. While it is a concept that has been around in academic circles since the late '80s, VUCA, an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, has turned into a nearly constant phenomenon. Leaders everywhere are faced with new challenges, and the word "unprecedented" (fill in the blank: circumstances, pandemic, climate change or technology disruption) continues to be a staple in our vocabulary.
Forced to improvise — and with new demands of their time and skills, testing their emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical limits — leaders can look to psychology to offer them perspectives to their many pressing questions and dilemmas.
Here are some research-backed concepts that can provide great insights to leaders, those who are determined to not only make it through the VUCA world we currently inhabit but also succeed in it and leave it in better shape for future generations.
1. Fundamental Attribution Error
Attribution error theory was developed by Lee Ross. The main conclusion of his research was that people have a self-serving tendency to attribute others' behaviors to internal, innate characteristics — in contrast, people attribute their own behaviors to external circumstances. What does this mean? Simply put, the fundamental attribution error is thinking that "people do bad things because they are inherently bad people," thus under-emphasizing situational, contextual reasons for the behavior of others. While simultaneously explaining our own behavior by the external circumstances as opposed to our inherent qualities, "I lashed out in the meeting because it had been a long day and I was tired."
What could managers learn from this research?
Managers can slow down the automatic judgments and question their impulses to avoid, quite literally, making a fundamental error in their judgment. When tempted to "explain" other people's behavior by saying things like "she is just lazy" or "he will never gain enough maturity to lead a team because of his laid back personality," leaders can pause to consider other contributing external circumstances as well as their own role (conscious and unconscious) in the situation.
Albert Bandura described self-efficacy as a belief in one's own "capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments." Self-efficacy equates to a sense of confidence in your own abilities to achieve your goals and to get things done. It might sound something like this: "Hmm, this is a tricky problem. But I am confident that I can figure it out. I will find the time and resources — both internal and extrinsic — to make things happen as I imagine them." Bandura found that this attitude makes a significant difference in people's sense of optimism and is a strong predictor of what people are ultimately able to accomplish.
How can managers evoke a sense of self-efficacy in the people they lead?
Team members with a high degree of self-efficacy are resourceful, more optimistic and develop new skills more easily because they are confident that they can succeed. Instead of solely focusing on corrective feedback, leaders can spend time lifting their team members up by coaching them to grow their strengths.
It also helps to genuinely believe in other's potential and to demonstrate it by encouraging self-management, trusting team members to set their own goals and by empowering them to tackle thorny challenges independently.
3. Active-Constructive Responding
The concept of active-constructive responding was developed by psychologist Shelly Gable and is a communication style that begins with fully absorbing what the person is saying to us and then responding actively, as well constructively. When we engage in this kind of communication, it strengthens relationships, promotes trust and validates the people we interact with.
How can leaders and managers learn to employ active-constructive responding?
In the fast-paced work environment, managers and leaders sometimes engage in the destructive, as opposed to constructive, responses. If a team member says, "I successfully finished project X ahead of schedule," an active constructive response from their manager would sound something like: "That's fantastic. Well done! Tell me more. What allowed you to complete it ahead of schedule, and what were some of the lessons learned along the way?" Sounds pretty amazing, doesn't it? When people feel heard and noticed, and thus valued, it motivates them to go the extra mile and also to feel more engaged.
4. Unconditional Positive Regard
Likely the hardest concept to imagine being part of any work-related conversation is unconditional positive regard, the belief that each person deserves complete acceptance, care and supportive treatment. The attitude of full acceptance served as the foundation on which the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers believed his patients could evolve, improve and become more self-fulfilled, ultimately reaching their full potential.
What insights can managers and leaders glean from this concept?
It's unrealistic (and probably humanly impossible) to expect managers to have a truly unconditional positive regard in the varied, complex and often challenging circumstances of work-life. It's even difficult for highly trained therapists. But let's imagine and strive for a world where managers and leaders place empathy and kind regard as a foundation to "how they do things" as they manage, lead and make decisions about their team members. In a world where empathy and compassion can be scarce, could a dose of kindness help team members thrive? May it help them connect more deeply to their organization? Feel more valued? The answer is most likely yes.
While these four concepts are insightful, they are not always easy to implement. However, they are worth exploring. Adam Grant, in his new book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know encourages readers to keep growing intellectually and to constantly challenge their thinking patterns. Psychology can offer great wisdom and practical ideas for leaders to help take them and their teams to higher levels of performance...with a bit more thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.