The ‘shadow beliefs’ that drive your actions

There has been much written about what constitutes good leadership and management practice and what is required to have engaged and motivated staff.  Despite this there is much data to suggest that we are still not that great at it – otherwise referred to as the knowing–doing gap.  This is partly due to the fact that for many people leading others is not a natural actit requires high degrees of selflessness, self-control and conscious attention.  Underpinning our day-to-day unconscious auto-pilot leadership actions/non-actions are potentially some ‘shadow beliefs’ – more self-protective and controlling in nature – that we dare not confront or even say out loud.  However, rather than judging yourself negatively for these, it is helpful to accept them as natural human behaviours (from years of evolution), acknowledge them to yourself and commit to doing the hard work of continuously improving.

So let’s get specific – what are these shadow beliefs that you might want to confront? 

Outlined below is a brief list of commonly espoused beliefs about when people are likely to perform well at work.  This list doesn’t come from a single source, but is an amalgam of themes from the literature on motivation, wellbeing and leadership as well as the reflections over 800 participants in our Discovery in Action® leadership development program.  There is nothing particularly controversial in this list, and whilst I’m sure the nuances could be debated at length I would suggest that most people interested in leadership and management would think…’’yeah, it’s a reasonable list’’.

So a reasonably well accepted set of beliefs might be that…people perform at their best at work when they:

  1. Are doing purposeful, meaningful work
  2. Have autonomy and feel empowered
  3. Are clear about their role and expectations
  4. Feel part of a team
  5. Are learning, growing and developing
  6. Feel supported
shadow beliefs

These might be described as a list of commonly espoused beliefs, however using the theories of action science it is interesting to do a basic analysis to reveal what might be the underlying beliefs-in-use – our ‘shadow beliefs’ as I’m calling them.  So while people might say they believe these things (who hasn’t been in a workshop where these sorts of things are vigorously agreed upon) leaders may not consistently demonstrate actions or behaviours that are consistent with these beliefs.

So what is going on here?  Let’s take a look in the shadows…

1. Are doing purposeful and meaningful work

Even though I say I believe this, sometimes I am guilty of:Perhaps what I really believe is [shock, horror!!]…
Not assigning work aligned to individual’s strengths and motivations Not taking the time to understand people’s aspirations Not helping them understand how their work connects to broader goalsPeople don’t need to love their work to do a good job They’re getting paid to do a job – isn’t that enough It’s not my responsibility to help them find meaning in their work

2. Have autonomy and feel empowered

Even though I say I believe this, sometimes I am guilty of:Perhaps what I really believe is [shock, horror!!]…
Providing detailed instructions all the time on how to do tasks Checking up on their progress a bit too often Regularly changing or ‘fixing’ their workMy staff can’t be trusted to ‘get it right’ I’m the one that is ultimately accountable therefore I need to control all the work of my team I’m smarter than my staff – I’ll do a better job

3.  Are clear about their role and expectations

Even though I say I believe this, sometimes I am guilty of:Perhaps what I really believe is [shock, horror!!]…
Not articulating performance standards Not holding people to account for performance Not regularly discussing expectationsIf I’m tough on people they won’t like me or view me as caring They are professionals – they should be able to work it out themselves If I do too much telling they’ll think I’m micromanaging and that’s bad

4.  Feel part of a team

Even though I say I believe this, sometimes I am guilty of:Perhaps what I really believe is [shock, horror!!]…
Not holding regular team meetings Not providing opportunities for people to work together Not holding team social eventsIndividuals will always come up with better solutions than a group Workplace relationships have no impact on work performance Peers don’t really learn from each other This team stuff takes a lot of time and I’m not sure it translates to tangible value

5. Are learning, growing and developing

Even though I say I believe this, sometimes I am guilty of:Perhaps what I really believe is [shock, horror!!]…
Not providing challenging ‘stretch’ assignments Not actively supporting on-the-job learning Not putting much effort into annual development plansShort term is more important than long-term I don’t believe my staff have potential

6. Feel supported

Even though I say I believe this, sometimes I am guilty of:Perhaps what I really believe is [shock, horror!!]…
Not regularly recognising progress or achievements Not supporting flexible work arrangements Not offering help when people are under pressure Letting people sink or swimGetting tasks done is more important than relationships People don’t need recognition for just doing their job How people feel doesn’t impact their performance They are getting paid to do this so they should just get on with it
shadow beliefs - do they matter

So, have a look down the list of actions/non-actions listed on the left-hand side.  Do some of those sound like you?  For those that most sound like you, have a look at the right-hand side.  Do some of those ‘real beliefs’ uncomfortably resonate with you?  Some of them might sound ridiculous when you read them – intellectually you might know that they are just not right yet deep down you may concede that they lie somewhere within you.  For some others you might just concede that you probably do believe these things and that it does influence your day-to-day behaviours and actions. 

The question you need to confront is – does it matter?  Do my real beliefs and consequent actions/non-actions negatively impact individual and team performance?

So, now you have an interesting situation – you say you believe one thing but your actions/non-actions suggest that you might believe something else. You’ve now brought it out of the shadows and into the light.  Don’t beat yourself up – this is a good thing!  You’ve named it and you are now conscious of it.  You are now much better placed to do something about it, if you believe it is important enough to make a change.  Of course now begins the hard work of changing your habits and behaviours.  Check out this post on the Wheel of Change for some tips that might help…