Warning- after reading this, you may become hyper self-aware or more socially aware of other’s behaviors….
Unless you’re a senior leader because if you’re a senior leader, research tells us that “the experience of power involves the awareness that one can act at will without interference or serious social consequences (Weber, 1947).” Given this, it’s likely that you have some awkward tendencies. I don’t have research to support that last statement, just anecdotal evidence from my time in the lower echelons of corporate life. But keep reading, you may learn something, about yourself or about others. And if you have any stories to share of your own Awkward Executive Experiences- send them our way, we’d love to hear from you.
In a previous corporate role I held, I had a close-knit group of friends (did you know that research shows you work at your peak when you have friends at your work?), and we noticed that some executives had behavioral tendencies or quirks. At best, some could be considered idiosyncratic, and in some instances downright weird. (Note to self: leaders cast a large shadow, and, yes, leaders are being observed.).
Looking up the authority ladder, we tracked the behaviors, and, following the human biological need to mirror others, each of us created our own signature move. Mine was the “wink and pistol” others tried the back-slap, the bro-hug, the awkward scratch, and other moves or norms of corporate life, you know like synergy…
We had fun (yes, research supports this too- it’s ok to have fun at work- but not at the expense of others), it wasn’t about making fun of others, it was about watching social interactions and raising our level of awareness to the behaviors that stood out most. We watched to see how other executives would react to one another, looked for cues- body movements and facial expressions, but mostly we wanted to understand if the executives even understood what they were doing. Most didn’t.
Years later, I found the research that supports why most were unaware. It’s the approach-inhibition theory, and it tells us a lot about how we change our behavior and psychological states based on our access to power. It’s been known since the earliest days of humankind that power can influence the ways in which we interact with others. The strongest caveman called the shots. What’s different today is that there is actually evidence that power can change our brain and in turn, the ways in which we interact with others, especially those considered in the lower echelons of power.
The key for those of us who lead people is to become more mindful of the ways in which our access to resources, information, and ultimately to power in our world influence the ways we lead. We have the ability to self-manage and even become more self-aware of our patterns and behaviors.
The awareness of our patterns and behaviors is data. With data, we can make choices, or not. What we do with the data is up to us…we’re the ones in charge.
Those with less power are making meaning and learning from our behaviors. It’s in these interactions that culture is set and norms are established. Human interaction is complex and fraught with challenge and opportunity. Leadership is a noble act and a privilege, the challenge ahead for those of us who lead, is to be mindful of how we show up, manage how we interact with others, and to be mindful of the role that power plays in our interactions with others. We’re being watched, it matters.
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