The Sabertooth ate your Profits & People

Image from the Dynamic Earth Exhibit, www.edinburghspotlight.com

Image from the Dynamic Earth Exhibit, www.edinburghspotlight.com

If traditional Results Based Leadership is less profitable than Heart Based, why are most leaders still results based?

This question came up in the thread response to Mark Crowley’s recent LinkedIn article, 5 Reasons Why Gallup Believes Workplace Leadership Demands Disruption. He makes a good case for leaders to care for their people in business. 

The Sabertooth Tiger is Alive and Well in our Amygdala

When we have a threat to our economic sustenance, it triggers a more primal type of fear, like a sabertooth biting us on the back of our neck. Though most of the time, we’re not actually in a life-or-death situation, our amygdala responds to that financial threat in a way that we, either dramatically, or subtly, proceed as if that is the case. 

When it’s a dramatic fear response, it’s easier for us to see when, and what we’re doing is out of whack, and say to ourselves, “damn! Stop being a jerk, I’m a moron, I am hurting our people and business.” But when it’s subtle and related to employee care, well, our fear response is another story. It's really hard to shake the feeling of a primal threat to our economic sustenance and we can get stingy in the soft cost areas of our time, focus and effort. We make little decisions over time, that go unnoticed by ourselves. We don’t take the time to coach somebody or put effort into a positive corporate culture because of time and cost pressures. We don’t change or remove useless policies because change costs productive time. We don’t stop and be empathetic or appreciate someone’s repeated good work because it takes from our productive efforts. We don’t provide beneficial perks because they cost money. Guess what? Our people do notice this, even when we're not.

And then, we make a bunch of money and we look back on our decisions and say, “those were good choices,” while we pat ourselves on the back. Come on, how can we argue with a profitable result! (Even if it could have been so much more!) So, the next time comes around, and we deploy the same behaviors and tactics. Unfortunately, and still unaware, that our why for what we are doing, at that point, becomes, “because it worked before,” and then, it becomes even more difficult to consider the more caring aspects. Or worse, we don’t even think about them.

We all do this. And, we don’t even realize it. We don't know when, and where these fear response decisions actually limited how things could have been so much better. Then, if we do think about it, or it’s pointed out to us, we attach rationales to why we did what we did, to support our emotional comfort. If I do X, Y, and Z, like I did before, Eureka! I will be successful again! And there you have it, results based leadership continues on- "The Circle of Life..." at the cost of your people and greater profits. (Sorry for the bad Lion King reference there, he he...)

If We Want to break free of Fear's Primal Teeth- We Must First See & Name It

If we want to stop this cycle, we really have to be more emotionally self-aware of why and how emotions affect us as we filter evidence and make our decisions. You see, once we feel something (and by the way, we always feel something) and start gathering the details, we gather them in familiarity and alignment with our bias of that feeling. Say we hear a sound in the woods and we’re afraid (fear), a stick cracks on the other side of the thicket. We ask in trepidation, “is it a bear or a cougar.” And if were not afraid, we say, “let’s go see if that’s a beautiful elk through there. It’s the same thing that happens when we hear, there’s an all hands meeting, or, all of the execs have been in a meeting for seven hours. We gather details, from our past in our own brains and people’s pasts around us, from our present surroundings and in our speculations. We shouldn’t be so self-deceived in that we are objective upon hearing that stick crack, though we'd like to think so.

Even in our objectivity we are emotional. Take the examples where, one says “I follow my gut,” and the other says, "I get objective facts” before making my decisions. Obviously, we assume the “follow my gut” guy makes an emotional decision. What he is really doing is identifying as much of what he fears could go wrong, versus what could go right as related to attaining the goal, feeling comfortable and making a decision. The details have been filtered, validated or debunked by what he feels. Nevertheless, he feels comfortable with some things he can’t quite identify, or articulate in that decision. He is deciding to take heed of some evidence even if he can’t quite put his finger on it.

Hey, guess what “get objective facts” gal does? She identifies as much as she can about what could go wrong, weights that against what could go right in attaining her goal, feels comfortable and makes a decision. She filters, validates or debunks details based upon what she feels is an objective comparison because it feels better for her to make decisions that way. Her evidences feel credible as measured to her criterion she feels comfortable with, so she decides they are in. 

Both use evidence and both use feelings/emotions to validate. Funny thing about this, whether we’re gut or objective oriented, our feelings are part of the choice, clear down to the details. This is not a bad thing. It’s just how our brains work. Data gets processed by the systems in our brains, hits the amygdala as a non-conscious process, and at some point, and if there is a threat of loss, then it responds: danger or safe. No decision is really made without feelings. Sure, some decisions will have more intrinsic or heightened emotion than others. This is why, when we make a decision that sucks, we say, “ugh, should’ve went with my gut,” or, “damn, I wish I had done better research.” Without those feelings we wouldn’t attempt to make a better decision next time, because we’d just suck. Those emotions are how we know.

How we feel about the source of evidence matters. In grad school, I was lucky to be hanging out with an extremely frustrated professor in a theology class. There were a series of classes where the students argued and wouldn’t believe or follow with what the professor was teaching. One day he blurted out in exasperation, “How the heck do students spend thousands of dollars a year to come and learn, and then show up to class and believe what their pastor and parents say, over what we’re teaching here that has tons of evidence?!!!” After class ended, I walked up to him, gave a chuckle in empathy and said, “because you weren’t holding their hands as they were learning from their parents and pastors as they went to the highs and lows in life. It's simple. How we feel, directly effects how we will evaluate, weight, and, even accept things into evidence. Don’t believe this?  Just watch Fox News or MSNBC.

Yeah, so what, how does this apply to caring for employees in business? For the business owners who felt economic loss when they cared for employees in a past decision, they feel that threat of future loss every time they hear, “care for employees”. The sabertooth has them by the back of their necks. Any evidence that validates care for employees gets greeted with heavier skepticism. And, the relationship of the source of that information matters for initial credibility.

When we incur and we feel the economic loss that’s associated with, or contributed to, a decision made in caring for employees, we can't help but feel the sabertooth clamping down on our neck.  It reminds us that we’re not in business to go out of business. (This by the way, is the opposite of the focus of we’re in business to grow and make a better world.) Now in our next decision, if it revolves around caring for employees, we will have to deal with loss aversion because we lost money last time.  It’s a strong driving emotion. Studies show that loss aversion has an emotional weighting of 2:1 over attaining gain. With regards to leadership in caring for our people, this is where we need to be emotionally self-aware, especially in light of the evidence. We simply have to work harder to emotionally overcome the aversion despite the significant evidence that caring for our employees and creating a positive culture will make even greater gains for our organizations. 

From an evidence standpoint, it should be clear to us that if we take care of our employees we will simply do better in business. The Glassdoor Company Culture Payoff report from 2015 seems pretty clear.

Yet, it still takes a 2 to 1 emotional effort, even with data that supports caring for your people and creating a positive culture, hitting us right between the eyes.  I guess it's safe to say, overcoming a primal fear isn't that easy.

Seeing & Naming the Sabertooth isn't enough- We have to Own & Work with It

After seeing and naming we can now own our emotions and work with our sabertooth to give us emotional warnings that are in accord with the evidence around us. But, if we deny those teeth, they'll clamp right back our necks. Our lack of awareness here will cause us to make decisions that are far less economically beneficial for us and our companies.

How exactly do we own and work with our fear? 

  • Pay attention to what we're feeling as we gather evidence in decision-making, keeping the dramatic and subtle with loss aversion in mind. And, that means owning and noting the small subtle emotional moves that happen in us. Giving external credit or control of our emotions to outside forces removes our ability to deal with them and makes us a victim. Becoming emotionally aware takes practice; it changes our neuroplasticity. Own it.
  • Get comfortable noticing our varied emotional states. The more comfortable we are, the less and less time and effort is required. Talk with a buddy about loss fears and evidence versus attaining gains and costs. We also get divergent views for balance and correction. Put more effort into facing your loss aversion emotions since they take 2x the effort. 
  • Use emotional feedback, awareness and reflection to inform, evaluate and guide choices. Reflect upon the evidences that we accept and reject, and acknowledge where emotional responses impact them. Make decisions that are fully realized and informed by one's own emotional state. Develop the emotional value of choices by having a business purpose and ROI.

By seeing can Seeing, Naming, Owning and Working with our emotions, we can be as Mark Crowley call it, "a the manager who cares about them (employees) as a person, advocates for their wellbeing and seeks to maximize their full human potential," and not one that is inadvertently stopped by fear. This will increase the value of their contributions for their organizations and the world around them.

Adding it all up

If you want to break the cycle of fear that preserves mere results based leadership: (1) see how fear affects us, (2) name what happens so we can (3) own our emotions and (4) work with them to make caring and smarter choices for our people and better organizational output.

If we do this, maybe we can break the 15 year trend of only having one third or less of our employees being fully engaged. Imagine what our world would look like if there were two thirds fully engaged.