Do You Really Want to Manage?

It’s a common question among early-career professionals, those in the first 5-7 years of their career. But it also arises later for mid-career adults who’ve had a bit of supervisory or managerial experience. And beyond its specific focus on managerial versus non-managerial career options, it symbolizes a deeper inquiry about what we want in life, what motivates us and why, deeper more existential questions.

Career in Management.jpg

So, perhaps “want” is the most important word in my title. It points directly to the appetitive dimension of human nature and motivation. And when we consider the more nuanced differences between want and desire, and seeking and striving, we discover the source, meaning, and power of such aspirational themes, how they shape our identity, influence our actions, and produce joy or perpetual restlessness.  

Simple Definitions Reveal Complexity

About Wants

To want is to desire, but in a specific sense. It’s a simpler, object-specific desire for something we do not have. Wants arise and are satisfied or not through our acquisition of the wanted object, i.e., chocolate, a car, a pay raise, a promotion, a date, tickets to a concert – things that are external to us as persons. Wants come and go, one after another. They’re discrete felt needs of limited duration.  

About Desires

Desires that live beyond the satiation of any one want, that go to our sense adequacy and well-being as a person… Well, that’s a different thing. It’s the full and proper meaning of desire as distinct from want. Its aim is to extinguish deeply felt needs for completion. Its intensity is a craving to fill a hole within us. Its intensity can become desperate, obsessive, especially as it grows outside conscious awareness. 

Risks of Confusion

It is in this sense that in Buddhism and in some Western religions, desire can be seen as the root of all suffering and moral failure. It is in this sense also that desire can lead to inauthentic living. For rather than focusing on being, we surrender to an anxious, acquisitive, alienating mode of life called having. We mistake parts for the whole of life. We mistake stuff for growth and self-actualization.  

So, want and desire run amok can lead away from love, virtue, growth, and happiness. But they’re also inherent to our nature. They energize our being and need not run amok, lead to harm and unhappiness. When we attend to and notice the wants and desires that define our appetite and actions, we can choose to examine them with an attitude of curiosity. We can learn!  

Wisdom from Reflection

Something as ostensibly practical and compartmentalized as the question of whether or not I really want a career in management can lead to more fundamental questions. Notice how these questions arise from troubled feelings, in moments of suffering. Wants and desire are felt and acted on long before they consciously or cognitively known. Their life predates our verbal and cognitive abilities. 

Some Classic Wisdom

The words of a famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, are relevant here: “The endeavor, wherewith everything endeavors to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.” (From his Ethics) Our vital endeavors to be can run amok. We are imperfect creatures. and we are moved by two kinds of emotion according to Spinoza, those linked to actions and passions.          

Actions are purposive endeavors, conscious and guided by considered judgment. Passions are aroused or excited by things and experience external to us. They may arouse positive feelings, elevated emotions of wonder, compassion, and love. However, when they operate without the mediation of mind, they can also arouse baser fears and reactive acts of avoidance or aggression.  

Practical Take-Aways

It is our relationship to the feelings that arise in life that is most vital. Thus, asking what I want and why I want it raises to consciousness the aims and meaning that our strivings hold for us. What is it that seems so important? What is it that this desire signals about me and what I need? In this way, some desires are extinguished (as false goods), others reframed as wants or transformed into something less intense.  

We now more easily appraise the relative importance of the values that underlie our appetitive strivings. We gain emotional freedom and make informed choices about life goals and career goals. Our strivings are aligned – and they’ll need to be repeatedly aligned – with aims of virtue and happiness. Always more difficult in reality than in thought, and always made easier in conversation with those we trust.

Fear as a Call to Action

We think of fear as a negative emotion. It excites reactive tendencies to avoid something, flee a situation. It can even cause a momentary paralysis of action. We can feel embarrassed to admit and reveal our fears. So, it’s not difficult to see why fear is among the least welcome emotions.

 Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

A Closer Look at Fear

There are two kinds of fear. The first is a naturally endowed, instinctual fear, which has an obvious evolutionary survival value. It’s a visceral reaction to imminent threat. It’s aroused automatically as a product of the autonomic nervous system. It accelerates our heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and raises blood pressure, prepares us to flee, flight, or freeze.

The other kind of fear is learned. Much of it is learned early in life based upon our feelings of security. Absent reliably available and encouraging caregivers, we might learn that we’re on our own. Relationships can’t be trusted. We feel less secure, are more likely to perceive threats and to amplify and exaggerate them. Such fears, once functional, can become dysfunctional.

Fear as Positive

A more adaptive learning occurs in the presence of reliable, caring parents. Fears are treated as prompts for learning. First, the parent is there as a safe harbor - child is not on his/her own. Second, the parent-child dialogue places fears at a safe distance - child survives them and learns that setbacks are survivable. Finally, the child finds safe ways to face what was earlier feared.

This is what I meant by characterizing fear as a “call to action.” Rather than learning that fears are to be denied or fled from, we can focus on the message the fears convey: “A reactive fear is forming. I can feel it. It could flood me with amplified and exaggerated feelings of distress. But I know that the best course of action might be to pause, reflect, discuss the situation.”

Fears will continue to visit us. After we’ve left home, advanced into early adulthood, perhaps started a career, and may even have formed a committed relationship or family, they will come. So, we need to take what we learned with our parents and seek the help of others, i.e., supervisor, spouse, close friends. But what if we didn’t get that supportive help and learning as a child?

Activating the Positive Value of Fear

Find a psychotherapist or coach to help you learn the lessons you missed in childhood. They are trained to be that kind of presence for you. It’s not too late. Moreover, they can help you learn how to cultivate this kind of joint learning with others at work or at home. And the first thing you’ll learn is how to recognize your own learned fears as they arise.

Fears can have positive value as signals when we learn to recognize them. When we acquire the capacity to notice the visceral sensations, we bring them into our conscious awareness, i.e., “Oh, it’s you again!” We’re then able to transform their automaticity. In discussion with others, we objectify fears, we problematize them and analyze them.

And from there we can usually find adaptive avenues of action. The problem-focused avenue works on the external circumstances. The meaning-focused avenue works on the meaning which the external situation have for us. As we examine our relationship to these circumstances, we find that there are alternative ways to look at (appraise) the situation.

The helping relationship becomes a place for cultivating these ways of relating to others about our fears. In the safety of this relationship a corrective pattern of emotional response grows. Our inhibitions about acknowledging and addressing fears weakens. And that frees us to go to work on the residual problems and challenges with greater confidence, patience, and persistence.

Adaptive Development

It’s difficult to imagine that any achievement-oriented, high-functioning adult would not at some point in his or her life experience a “rough patch” characterized by high levels of stress. It’s often induced by the time and performance pressures inherent to the challenges we invite, welcome, and take on.

Stress, Depression, & Burnout

Research confirms what many of us have experienced as the effects of stress. When levels of stress rise and remain high for long periods of time, it leads to felt strain, fatigue, and depressed mood. The physical and psychological effects of chronic stress can thereby lead to burnout.

But how do you know where you are on this continuum of stress-depression-burnout? And what do we know about effecting a turnaround, even using episodes of acute stress and depressed mood to cultivate resilience (so-called “hardiness” and “mental toughness”)?

 Developing  mental toughness  can make a difference: (Haghighi & Gerber, 2018)

Developing mental toughness can make a difference: (Haghighi & Gerber, 2018)

Stress is associated with depression symptoms, but the effects differ depending upon whether we have high levels or low levels of mental toughness. In fact, mental toughness has been found to be negatively related to stress, depression, burnout, and sleep issues. How do we bottle it, right? Or more practically speaking, what is it and how do we develop it?

It consists of four interrelated dimensions (the 4 Cs):

  1. Control - feeling able to take charge, influence outcomes

  2. Commitment - ready to apply self, persist, confront issues

  3. Challenge - seeing change as normal, opportunity vs threat

  4. Confidence - feeling of self-efficacy and competence

Can we develop mental toughness: Yes, research suggests that mental toughness works as a stress buffer, a resilience resource, and it is a "target variable for health interventions."

Cultivating Mental Toughness

It's hard to feel in control when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and can't see where to begin and how to proceed. By stepping back from the field of action with the help of a coach, you begin to gain a more balanced perspective, which calms and clears your mind. This momentary reduction in stress, creates time and space in dialogue to sort things out, prioritize concerns, identify action steps, all of which breeds hope and a greater internal locus of control. 

We're more likely to rally commitment when there is reason for hope and resources to support our efforts. And it's more rational when we have realistic plans and a step-by-step approach to begin changing things for the better. starting now. It's not just your coach who will support your efforts. Through dialogue with the coach you're able to identify key areas in which you need help as well as ideas about who to approach and how for help.

To see your situation as a challenge is to frame it more in terms of adaptive development. "Of course I'm feeling overwhelmed, look at the novelty, complexity, time pressures, and scope of the demands I've been facing. I was paralyzed by it all. But that was then, this is now." We begin seeing challenge as a development opportunity. You don't need to pretend you have everything figured out. Now is the time to go about learning to figure it out!

All of us can have our confidence shaken. We can also regain our confidence through taking intelligent action and building on incremental gains. With each step forward we affirm our practical competence and value as an actor, as a collaborator, as a leader. We learn to feel more at ease in freely revealing our questions, our needs for knowledge and resources, and our determination to draw upon others to build our capabilities to perform and realize our goals.

Signs of Burnout

Christina Malach was the first to develop a sound conceptualization of burnout. She operationalized it in the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which has been widely used internationally to study stress and burnout. Burnout consists of three dimensions: Exhaustion ("I feel emotionally drained."); Cynicism ("I doubt the value/significance of what I'm doing."); and Professional Efficacy ("I can/cannot solve the problems that I am facing."). 

Challenge Development Curve.jpg

In a somewhat different model, I've conceptualized the phenomenon of burnout in the Challenge-Development Curve. In this graphic we observe that rising levels of challenge will usually prompt rapid and adaptive gains in learning and competence. That is, up to a point, the inflection point. It's at or near that point that, absent some kind of helpful intervention, we begin experiencing burnout ("decompensation").

The critical factor in learning to cope more effectively with stress and identifying opportunities to cultivate mental toughness, is recognizing the signs of an approaching inflection point. See the table below.

Warning signs for development Cropped.jpg

We're an adaptive species with plenty of capacity to learn, grow, thrive. But timely intervention means noticing our flagging energy, motivation, mood, and dips in performance. What we feel or see in others's feelings should alert us to taking action. There are rather quick and easy ways of assessing the symptoms of depression and anxiety that might arise with burnout. And it's important to do so.

Solutions comes in many "sizes." A relatively simple case of stress trending toward burnout, but which has not yet produced strong symptoms of depression or anxiety might be resolve in 4-6 meetings with a coach. In more complex cases, a great deal of progress can usually be achieved in 6-8 meetings. In either case, feelings of hope, a vital part of the change process, can begin arising even in the first couple meetings.  

Resources:

Haghighi, M., & Gerber, M. (2018). Does mental toughness buffer the relationship between perceived stress, depression, burnout, anxiety, and sleep? International Journal of Stress Management.

Slavich, G. M., & Auerbach, R. P. (2018). Stress and its sequelae: Depression, suicide, inflammation, and physical illness. In J. N. Butcher & J. M. Hooley (Eds.), APA handbook of psychopathology: Psychopathology: Understanding, assessing, and treating adult mental disorders., Vol. 1. (pp. 375–402). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

On Destructive Leadership

Destructive leadership is about more than "dark-side" qualities of the individual leader, and the harms done are more than temporary and commercial.

A recent article[1] on “destructive leadership” (toxic leadership) caught my eye. It promised a holistic perspective on the phenomenon. The authors emphasize the role of followers and environmental factors, internal and external. Together, these factors converge to reinforce, check, and moderate leaders’ behavior. It seemed to encourage an “It Takes a Village” mindset. That’s good.  

The article is a long and serious piece, but I found a couple of things lacking in it. First, a reductionistic style of thinking (more on that later) and the lack of a compelling ethical point of view, which I found surprising since it was published in the Journal of Business Ethics. But even when we differ with others, the stimulus helps clarify our thoughts on the matter. Here’s how it worked for me.  

Their Critique of Leader Centricity

They believe Western individualism is at the root of a “leader-centric” approach to destructive or toxic leadership. This point of view can cause us place too much emphasis on individual leader behaviors.[2] The authors’ intention[3] was to correct this imbalance. It was “not to excuse or to make any moral judgments about certain ‘bad’ leader behaviors.” Rather, their “critique” was intended to be “pragmatic.”  

Leader behaviors are part of a larger context. They’re part of a leadership process that involves group outcomes. And whether these processes are destructive or not “should be determined based on the degree to which they … harm the welfare of the group they are meant to serve, not whether certain leader behaviors are viewed negatively by some followers.”[4]  

They argue that leader behaviors do not “tell us about the actual outcomes of leadership processes.” For example, what some experience as abusive, may not feel abusive to others. So, an accurate appraisal of the efficacy of leader behavior and of leadership processes must be based on the quality of interactions between leaders and others over time – and on the outcomes.  

I find myself agreeing with much of this, but I also felt some reservations. I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that we – myself, clients I’ve worked with, and researchers – have been drawn to focus on leader behavior as a particularly potent cause of destructive leadership. More on that below.  

Their Argument from Tough Love

In arguing the importance of outcomes over the inherent quality and impact, positive or negative, of leader behavior, they offer “tough love” as an example. They argue that tough love may feel “frustrating or demotivating” initially but later come to be appreciated insofar as, from a retrospective point of view, it’s seen to boost motivation and improve results.  

But, I thought to myself, brief moments of feeling frustrated and demotivated, may constitute a wake-up call, but they don’t seem rise to the level of what we consider abusive or destructive behavior. And tough love is both tough and love. Could we really attribute the same characteristics to destructive behavior?  

Then, they add a “this-too-will-pass” caveat, presumably as rationale for discounting any appraisal of destructiveness. Outcomes, “destructive or constructive, are temporary.” Our appraisals seldom reflect a consensus. “[S]ome will fare poorly from largely constructive leadership episodes, while some will fare well from generally destructive episodes.” Something in this seems dismissive of an appraisal of harm.[5] 

The Coup de Grâce

Perhaps one of the most troubling beliefs I find in their thesis is that “intent is difficult, if not impossible to assess.” They believe that “We do not observe intentions, only behaviors and outcomes.” This is what I see as their essential reductionism. Discerning intentions is not always easy, but impossible? No, I don’t think so. We rely on it when initiating any kind of strategic action in a social-organizational context. 

Grasping strategic intent, practical intent, and social-emotional intent conditions our capacity to act with purpose, sustained effort, and passion. It grounds motivation, team cohesion, and personal meaning.

My Summary Insights

My criticism of the authors’ reductionism (i.e., we can only observe behavior, not infer intentions), and their value-neutral stance (i.e., their so-called pragmatism) on judging the inherent moral quality of acts  versus determining their moral meaning based solely on outcomes.   

Power of the Leader – There is a built-in asymmetry of power based on one’s position in a managerial hierarchy, the use of formal authority, and one’s title. Therefore, leaders bear a larger responsibility for the causes of destructive leadership, and greater accountability for eliminating it.[6]   

Importance of Intentions – Intentions go to the heart of distinguishes mere activity from action. Action is purposive. We owe to one another reasons for what we do or propose doing. This is essential to the meaning of intentions. They explain, inspire, and inform. They help define what is good, right, proper. 

Leadership as Communication – We assert leadership through communications, verbal and nonverbal, and through relationships. Intentions, motivations, alignment are established through a conversational style of communication. That’s how you acquire and validate a grasp of others’ intentions. 

Intrinsic Moral Quality of Behavior – There are basic moral and prudential norms in any society with respect to which we need not pretend neutrality: the dignity of all people; treating one another with respect; fair dealing and promise keeping; and they all have behavioral correlates.

Leader/Follower Roles– Yes, leading and following are reciprocal modes of action. But we’re not entirely defined by role-taking on these two modes of action. Most of us are also in a position to help assert leadership, shape direction, collaborate in execution, and more. We are all actors!


NOTES:

[1] Thoroughgood et al (2018). Destructive Leadership: A Critique of Leader-Centric Perspectives and Toward a More Holistic Definition. Journal of Business Ethics, 151: 627-649.

[2] Destructive leader behaviors may be bluntly mean and insensitive (hostility, coercion, humiliation) and/or morally flawed (theft, corruption, dishonesty).

[3] I find it rather ironic that they express an intention in writing, which they believe is important enough to merit sharing with the reader, yet they later they seem to deny that intentions can be understood.

[4] Consider the purpose of 360 feedback surveys in letting the leader know how he/she is perceived. The feedback, of course, this is only the stimulus function of a 360. It is through follow-up discussion that we find out what it really means, and why this behavior might affect the systemic patterns of behavior that generate destructive or constructive outcomes.

[5] I am struck by how this way of thinking conflicts with what we know about the role of positive leader behavior in building a sustainable culture and organizational identity, a role and contributions that help explain enduring business performance (Built to Last).

[6] This does not mitigate the importance and value of learning how to empower others to lead and to be genuine actors and not mere followers. But achieving that systemic level of effective leadership calls for a special effort on the part of senior managers.

Bridging Differences in Conversation

blurred-background-breakfast-caffeine-724668.jpg

When strongly felt differences arise in the moment, we can find ourselves at a loss for words, for reasons, and for the patience to find and express either. All we know is that something important is at stake that we cannot let go of without it being seen, heard, and understood by others.  

The Presenting Problem

A colleague recently asked me about resources he might use in helping a group learn how to talk more easily with one another about their different beliefs and world views. As we talked, he observed that the differences are not so much world views, for that implies a set of beliefs that is both comprehensive and rationally constructed. Rather, their differences were emotionally charged feelings and attitudes. 

To say they’re emotional is not to denigrate them. It describes their origin and intensity as beliefs and attitudes to which we’re strongly attached, vital feelings that signal something is at stake. Emotional, in this sense, does not necessarily rule out rational. It indicates a pre-reflective energizing source of beliefs, attitudes, and reactions. And it should invite us to take them seriously. 

When we are energized by such emotions, we want them to be taken seriously, to be respected. And if they are treated this way, we may be willing to submit them to a more considered examination. 

Truth be told, many positive actions and decisions are born of emotional reactions and intuitions. And the way they become informed actions or decisions is through being heard, considered, articulated, and elaborated. What was originally felt, perhaps with strong visceral reactions – positive or negative – can prompt reflection. It’s as though they are there to alert us, to tell us something important. 

Difficult Conversations

Yes, there’s a book by that name, and I recommended it to my colleague. It contains a methodological technique that is quite helpful as a means de-escalating and navigating discussion of differences that may feel threatening to broach and discuss. But my thoughts went elsewhere. They went directly to the crux of the matter, i.e., that strong feelings arising from emotional data are worth understanding 

Listening, hearing, and understanding the emotional data that fuel strong feelings is of value in the process of knowledge creation. It’s not that the relevant beliefs and knowledge exist beforehand and define our differences – at least not always. Often, the primary data of experience are not rational, they’re emotional, and they need to be translated into rational meaning through dialogue. 

In the process of patiently exploring what our emotional data are telling us, and why they’re causing us to feel the way we do, we learn more about why these emotions were triggered to begin with. We see what was felt to be important. As it is verbalized, often with significant effort, we find the right words and ideas to characterize our affective response. We gain control in the process. 

With practice, this translational act of transforming raw emotional data into words, ideas, and rational meaning occurs with greater ease. We gain fluency. When it’s done interpersonally, we learn that our emotional data are worth the time to consider. They often function as an early warning system. We come to see them as a starting point rather than denigrating them as an inferior class of data. 

Normative Considerations (rules of engagement)

But doing this implies norms of propriety and effectiveness that also create conditions mutual respect. There are two basic normative considerations that should guide our approach to these conversational communications practices: 

Expectation of Reasonableness

We owe one another reasons and an attitude of reasonableness. To genuinely hear and understand the import and meaning of others felt reactions and concerns, we must be an ally. Our questions must serve to help explore and articulate this meaning. And as the person who experiences the emotions directly and wants other to understand, we owe others our best effort to provide reasons. Patience is critical. 

Communicative Action vs Strategic Action

Before we seek to influence outcomes toward a desired end (strategic action), we must first create conditions of mutual understanding (communicative action). Communicating for understanding and honoring the norms patience and reasonableness described above enhances trust and ensures we’ll be heard and that we’ll hear others.  This makes any remaining differences much more discussable.