The Leader’s Paradox
By Srini Pillay, M.D. and Jim Selman
This article on navigating with less control in a world of accelerating change, co-authored with Dr. Srini Pillay, was originally published on Medium May 19, 2019.
At a time of unprecedented volatility and disruption in business, executing on business strategies and meeting financial goals can be challenging. In the midst of uncertainty, managers and leaders might find it difficult to guide people and the organization without exerting more control. They might feel more confident making a commitment when they believe that they will or can have more control over people’s actions and the outcomes of those actions. But control itself is often challenging or impossible.
When you believe you have or can have control over something or someone, you are creating a relationship in which your actions are dependent on that thing or person. In effect, you are reacting to whatever ‘it’ is and in doing so require ‘its’ persistence to maintain control — or the illusion of it. Paradoxically, you are compromising your ability to navigate forward. You cannot access your full capacity for acting when you are resisting. Why? Because you are using valuable brain units for reacting instead.
This rather unhelpful idea of “being in control” pervades our culture, our organizations and most of our the lives. It is the basis for conventional wisdom that says we can produce our intended outcomes and, coincidently, predict future outcomes if we know the right recipe or the right techniques.
We believe, however, that ordinary confidence gained from “being in control” is ineffective and that navigation is best achieved with a more nuanced understanding of control.
How can you as a leader navigate forward with existential confidence without relying on control?
We have distinguished six frameworks to help you develop a new relationship to control and six corresponding activities to cultivate your existential confidence.
ACCEPT that you are less in control than you think.
Although we believe that we are in control of our actions, much scientific research indicates that human “consciousness may be ill suited for direct control of physical behavior.”
Five lines of evidence indicate how little we actually are in control of our actions:
- Our intentions are planned by our brains before we know them: Many studies have indicated that our brains start planning things before we are aware of our actions, especially if the plans are short term (Slors, 2019). When you intend to do something, you are simply stating what your brain has already decided.
- We can’t control what we are not aware of: In the early 1980s, Cambridge psychologist Anthony Marcel and others were observing a lot of brain activity occurring outside of conscious awareness. We now know that it’s probably more than 90 percent. Even if you think you are controlling a situation, you have no idea what your unconscious brain is planning.
- Our insights trump analysis: One 2016 study comparing the accuracy of insight solutions vs analytical solutions showed that analyzing information (a form of control) is less effective than depending on our insights (which arrive spontaneously). For instance, if I gave you the words crab, sauce, and pine and asked you to find one word that applies to all three, you might first try to analyze this. To do this analytically, you would need to make a list of words and exclude each as you find it does not work (for example, crab cake works but pine cake does not). Alternatively, you may stare at the words and realize that the word is “apple” (crabapple, pineapple and apple sauce). This kind of insightful awareness is more accurate and does not involve deliberate control. In fact, it involves a kind of surrender.
- We are unconsciously biased: As early as the 1970s, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were telling us of our biases in thinking under uncertainty. Our biases, which we cannot automatically control, prevent us from being as “in control” as we might like to be.
- Deliberate practice makes up less than one percent of the success pie for jobs: Whereas we often think that practice makes things more automatic and gives us a sense of control, it does not. A 2014 meta-analysis by Princeton psychologist Brooke Macnamara and colleagues demonstrated that deliberate practice is not as correlated with success in jobs or learning as we think.
Action: We can, of course, attempt to control things. Sometimes we will be successful at this. More and more often though in today’s world, where the future is as uncertain as it is, we cannot predict what will happen. Fortunately, our unconscious brains are ahead of our conscious decisions. Reflect on this biological reality and you will be inspired to look for other navigational aids.
PREPARE your unconscious and defocused brain.
While many of us believe that extreme focus is necessary to be in control, what I call our “psychological center of gravity” is actually represented in the brain by a network called the default mode network (DMN). This network is turned on when you stop focusing and let go. Allowing your mind to wander while on a walk will turn this network on.
The reason that mind wandering helps control is that, when you are not focused, the DMN is activated and starts searching in the nooks and crannies of the brain for memories, finding things a focused mind could never find and putting bits of information together as if they were puzzle pieces. Basically, you access data that is more likely to initiate insights that can help you navigate in real time.
Action: Build 20 minutes periods of “unfocus” into your schedule a few times a day. Go for a walk on a curvy path. Free-walking increases your fluency, flexibility, and originality, thereby helping you navigate more effectively. Explore other forms of “unfocus” that can also be helpful.
SWITCH from “redundant” to “active” representations in your brain.
In 2014, philosophers Bryce Huebner and Robert Rupert explained that massively representational minds are not always driven by goals, conscious or otherwise. Rather, they explained that in the brain, “various forms of representation have motivational force”. Instead of using a “conscious-unconscious” approach in which we relegate control to the unconscious, it makes sense to turn to representations that have the power to move us.
These representations may involve memories of past actions that enhance our self-sufficiency, such as who we abstractly think we are (for example, our parents telling us, “You can’t keep a good horse down” when they were trying to encourage us after we were being unfairly treated, or actual linguistic belief-representations like, “You can do it.”). These “representations” are the pictures of you that the brain has collected over time, and on their own, they have the power to move you without an actual effort.
These representations often compete against forms of mental control, such as short-term memory and metacognition (self-awareness). For instance, if you believe you need (or have) control in order to achieve what you want, you must keep producing what you say you don’t want in order to stay in control or believe you are in control.
If your mental control (that is, telling yourself to do something) is in concert with these representations, you will be more motivated to do something. This will help you navigate toward your goal. But if your mental control does not jive with these representations, your navigation may be inhibited. This phenomenon of inhibition, called negative priming, explains why some people never reach their goals despite goading themselves on.
Action: Strive for personal congruence. To begin, put aside time once a week to remember your most motivating and demotivating experiences. Sketch these out in a self-portrait. Then, materially erase or physically throw the demotivating ones out. Replace them only with powerful memories that stimulate forward movement. The drive here is to increase internal congruency, not address past-driven action. This is preparatory work for a possibility-driven future.
AVOID past-driven ways of relating to the future.
In a stable, slowly changing reality, being in control can make sense—and even work—most of the time. We use our past experience to exert control in the present to achieve intended outcomes. When our intended outcomes aren’t realized, we attribute our failures to factors “outside our control”. This past-driven way of relating to the future is, in fact, continuously producing variations of what is known, believed, understood and expected, essentially giving us more of the past.
The increasing rate of change and disruptions in almost every aspect of our experience have created a world in which we can no longer rely on the past to inform our view of the future. We can no longer trust our predictions. Many, if not most, of our cherished recipes and beliefs are no longer working. We are literally living in a new ‘reality’ that is changing faster than most of us can comprehend.
According to an article in Harvard Business Review, the main reason why good leaders make bad decisions is because they are overly anchored to the past. Besides, in the brain, memory is wholly unreliable. Not only do we inflate our imaginations of what has happened. We also misremember, join seemingly related memories, and somehow generally remember things that miss important details (what is called ‘gist-memory’).
For this reason, it is important to distinguish the ordinary and familiar kind of confidence from what we are calling “existential confidence”. We can have ordinary confidence when there is past-based evidence and experience that proves something can be done—when risk and probabilities can be assessed and factored into the willingness to commit. Existential confidence becomes essential, however, when predictions can no longer be trusted and multiple risk scenarios are equally plausible.
Action: De-emphasize past-based ideas and predictions. Use possibility as a guide and then design actions that reflect your commitments. To effectively begin this process with existential confidence, use The Serenity Prayer to identify two things:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things that I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
REFRAME your relationship to your fears.
It is also useful to distinguish and practice separating the object of our concern for control from our relationship with whatever it is. For example, when we believe in self-control, we may have some negative emotion such as fear. We may believe that we need to manage ‘it’, overpower the negative feelings or avoid whatever it was we feared.
While techniques such as purposefully distracting ourselves or reframing the fear (saying to ourselves that it is going to pass) can be helpful and even change brain activation to reduce fear, reappraisal itself is a complex phenomenon. For example, sudden and unexpected anxiety is difficult to reappraise. It happens too fast for us to have enough time to think about differently.
Richard Lazarus, in his work on stress and coping, explained that one’s emotional response to a situation depends not on the objective properties of the situation, but on how one interprets or “appraises” the situation. When we can see that fear is different from our relationship with fear, we can re-examine our relationship with the fear, rather than react to it.
Action: Examine your relationship with fear. Avoid reacting to the fear. Instead, when you first notice it, observe it. Try to accept the fear, even if it is uncomfortable. When doing this, the fear usually disappears and you can remain focused on your commitments and action. With practice, recurring fear can disappear altogether.
CHOOSE compassion over goal setting.
According to organizational psychology professor Richard Boyatzis and his colleagues, compassion involves three things: noticing another’s need, empathizing, and acting to enhance their well-being. If you are trying to encourage someone to do something, compassion is an effective way to coach them. This may sound “soft”, but his research indicates that when you are compassionate toward someone, they feel good, and as a result, open their minds to new possibilities. What might previously have sounded impossible and demotivating will now sound motivating. In fact, Boyatzis found that leaders themselves feel a sense of relief when they can be authentically compassionate toward others.
This approach is in stark contrast to instrumental coaching. Instrumental coaching is exclusively goal-directed and attempts to get someone to comply with benchmarks. Boyatzis’s research indicates that coaching for compliance and highlighting personal deficiencies in the hope of correcting them over-activates the sympathetic nervous system and makes “fight, freezing or flight” reactions more likely than if you were being compassionate enough to help match individual goals with organizational goals. Self-compassion and compassion toward others, therefore, beats constant benchmarking. For leaders, compassion involves deeply understanding how individual goals relate to the overall corporate goals. Although this may seem superfluous, it is critical for both personal and organizational success.
Action: Express compassion to yourself and others. If you fail, avoid beating yourself up. If someone else on your team is not pulling their weight, find out why. See if you can feel what they are feeling. Also, highlight their strengths, rather than weaknesses, in your conversations. If you have to provide negative feedback, say how a potential correction could allow them to be their strongest selves.
Navigating today’s world more effectively using these six frameworks moves us beyond the dilemmas and limitations of control. When we understand these principles, we can build effective leadership practices to cultivate existential confidence. Having this type of confidence doesn’t change anything in our circumstances or necessarily alter our experience of what is happening. But it gives us a fundamentally different relationship with whatever occurs as we move into an uncharted and unpredictable future.