Conscious Leadership


Why this is important

Most of our behaviour is driven by our unconscious minds - but we don't realise this because, of course, we are not conscious of it!

We like to think we're acting with awareness and intention, but much of what we do is determined by the unconscious habits, beliefs, and ways of seeing we have learned over the course of our lives. To be effective leaders, we have to be able to consciously choose how we respond to the challenges we face, and be able to model the behaviours we want others to exhibit.

The Idea in Brief

From the start of our lives, we have learnt particular ways of seeing, thinking, feeling and acting. And when they have worked, we have made them into habits. And the longer they have worked, the more automatic and unconscious they have become.

These habitual ways of responding have developed for good, evolutionary reasons. We don't want to waste our time and energy forever starting from scratch when deciding what to do, so we develop automatic responses for familiar situations. Because we are social animals we have also learned to be very finely tuned to the emotions and behaviours of people around us, and have developed habitual ways of interacting that help get our needs for belonging, power, etc met. And, for society to exist, we need to behave in consistent ways. We could never build relationships if every time we met each other we were different - we would forever be meeting each other as if for the first time.

But some of these habitual ways of seeing, thinking and acting may well no longer be serving us - indeed they may be actively preventing us from achieving what we want to. We need to identify when this is happening, and then develop new, supportive habits. Fortunately, there is a simple emotional signal that can tell us we need to change our habits.

The Idea in Detail

Most of the time we operate on automatic pilot, guided by habitual responses learnt over a lifetime - which is just as well since otherwise we'd be overwhelmed by information and choice!. And when what we're thinking, feeling and doing is helpful, generative and aligned to the needs of the situation this works well. But when it isn't, our impact as leaders can be seriously diminished.

These habitual ways of responding are driven by hidden rules that govern how we see, think and act. The rules are hidden precisely so that we don't have put effort into consciously applying them to the situations we face but can just let them be applied outside of our conscious awareness. When these situations are the familiar situations that need us to respond as we always have, this unconscious application of the hidden rules works well.

But a problem arises when we want to respond in different ways, because for example what we are doing is not working. Very often, despite wanting to behave differently, we respond in the ways we have always done. And even if we catch ourselves before we respond in our habitual ways, we find it can be difficult to see alternative ways of responding because our hidden rules do their job and ensure we only consider a narrow range of possibilities.

The various kinds of hidden rules are shown in the diagram. There are rules that limit our awareness both of what's happening around us and what's going on inside us; rules that limit what we see as important, desirable and possible; and rules that limit what actions we see as useful acceptable or possible.

What makes hidden rules so powerful is not just that they operate outside of our conscious awareness, but that we feel uncomfortable when we go against them. These uncomfortable feelings very effectively push us back towards following our hidden rules. Conversely going with our hidden rules feels comfortable and is therefore the path of least resistance.

So How Do We Change Our Behaviour?

The first step is to notice the hidden rules in action so that we can step out from the limitations they impose on us. But the point of hidden rules is that they are hidden, so how do we get to see them? The answer lies in one of the mechanisms that makes hidden rules so powerful in the first place, the fact that we feel uncomfortable when there is a conflict between what we want to do or achieve and what our hidden rules 'allow' us to do. Thus feeling uncomfortable or anxious becomes a sign that our hidden rules are being challenged or are limiting us - and that in this moment we have an opportunity to see our hidden rules in action, bring them into our awareness, and so make different choices and behave in different ways to our usual ones. Dave Corbett and Ian Robert address this in From Know-How to Do-How where they propose the following 4 step process:

  1. notice that you are feeling uncomfortable and that you aren't getting the results you want. This means you are facing what the authors call a "do-how" moment and that your hidden rules are limiting you - and that you have the opportunity to make a breakthrough (as described above)
  2. describe the breakthrough you want, and how you will need to think and act to achieve the result you want
  3. uncover your hidden rules (see below)
  4. take responsibility for stepping out from the control of your hidden rules and making your own choices.

Uncovering Your Hidden Rules

Hidden rules are difficult to notice, not necessarily because they are tough to spot, but often because they are so obvious (like the fuzzy tip of your nose which is always at the centre of your field of vision but which you never notice). As Willis Harman elegantly put it: "we humans have an awesome ability to deceive ourselves, once we have settled on one perception of 'reality' all evidence to the contrary tends to become invisible. All hints or suggestions that our picture may be wrong or even seriously incomplete are warded off like flies on a Summer's day."

So here are some ways of finding your hidden rules, particularly those that are hidden in plain sight:

  • identify what you are avoiding and must/mustn't do (eg, "I mustn't upset anyone, I mustn't make mistakes, I mustn't ask for what I want, I must avoid risks")
  • notice what irritates or scares you or causes that quick tightening in the gut. What are the patterns of seeing, thinking and/or acting that lie behind these feelings?
  • identify your strengths, and then identify the implicit hidden rules in playing to those strengths that might limit you
  • look at the universal experiences that shape all our needs - to feel safe and secure; to have respect and self-esteem; and to pursue self-determination and personal control. As we make the journey from birth to adulthood, many rules and beliefs form around satisfying these common human needs - what are yours?
  • use personality models (like MBTI, the Enneagram) to give insight into your preferred patterns of thought and action
  • listen to you inner self talk and notice what you tell yourself. Notice in particular the judgements you make - the shoulds and shouldn'ts, the cans and can'ts, the always and nevers, and so on.

But not all our hidden rules are hidden in plain sight. We are remarkably adroit at hiding many of these rules (particularly those which we might be embarassed by) from ourselves - see Defences to Change.

What You Can Do

  • get used to noticing the uncomfortable feelings - rather than avoiding them or moving on from them. Learn to welcome them as pointers to your hidden rules
  • once you've started to identify a hidden rule, become alert to it operating and creating the uncomfortable feelings. This awareness of the cause of the discomfort gives you the inner space to be able see the feelings and their cause, and the opportunity to respond differently. With practice this becomes easier and easier until eventually the hidden rule loses its power over you and fades away.

Further Reading