Three Deadly Unconscious Decisions

by Jul 11, 2019It's Not What You Think

Most people think they make rational decisions and sometimes they do. Decisions, for most people, most of the time are based, in part, on facts and reason and in part on emotion and biology. Successful people, in particular, point to their success as evidence for their superior rationality and many scoff at the notion they are influenced by emotion and, yes, even biological fluctuations of neurotransmitters, hormones and level of fatigue.

To achieve lasting success, leaders need to know themselves as well as they know their business, industry, trends and competitors. Marshall Goldsmith, quite rightly says in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, “The higher you go the more of your problems are behavioral.” A masterful coach, Goldsmith helps leaders recognize and accept what they need to change and to make the change. His clients are smart and very successful people who do not suffer from limited intellect.

Why is it so hard for smart people to change? It is hard because the most challenging behavioral problems are those that leaders ignore, rationalize, or wear proudly as proof of their uniqueness. Amplifying the effect of a leader’s particular challenges are unconscious decisions about who is not important, what is not important and why their own behavior is only important when they say so.  

It matters far less what a Code of Ethics states than what leaders actually do. Policies and value statements are worse than meaningless when leaders violate them. Click To Tweet

Who is unimportant

People who are ignored, especially systematically, will stop contributing in the ways that are most important, even if they are technically doing their jobs. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, has done research that demonstrates several critical outcomes in organizations.    

  • Ideas remain unspoken, unexamined and unavailable to fuel innovation.
  • Risks are not brought to light, leaving companies vulnerable to crisis. Boeing, Wells Fargo, and Equifax all experienced crisis, but leaders pled ignorance.  
  • Conversely, when psychological safety is high, ideas flow freely, innovation is ignited, and dangers acknowledged.

What is unimportant

When Drew Madsen was named President of Olive Garden, he left headquarters and went around the US to visit dozens of the company restaurants. He didn’t just breeze through, he went in the kitchen and even learned how to use the backpack style vacuums used in the dining room. His successor, Dave Pickens, further strengthened the culture at Olive Garden by showing that he cared about small things that mattered to the employees and guests. The company thrived under their leadership.

  • Leaders who adopt a ceremonial approach to their role make others feel that what they do is menial.
  • Leaders who show sincere interest in what it takes to make a company run well help people feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that is contagious.

Which behaviors of the leader count  

It matters far less what a Code of Ethics states than what leaders actually do. Policies and value statements are worse than meaningless when leaders violate them. Yet, when a leader says one thing and does another, they often expect it to be a secret (it may be, but that is temporary), expect others to keep the secret, or rationalize away their behavior. It takes courage for colleagues and superiors to deal with a duplicitous leader, but it is essential. A few courageous acts that mattered greatly:

  • A Fortune 500 CEO, fired his COO who was also a close personal friend for engaging in a personal relationship with a subordinate.
  • A Chief Human Resources Officer of a $20B private company fired the “rock star” on her team for falsifying expenses.
  • Frank Blake, then CEO of The Home Depot, took center stage when the company’s data system was hacked. He apologized, stood up for his IT team, made promises and kept them.

In the crush of things to do, it is easy for anyone, even smart leaders to default to habitual ways of behaving.

Default behaviors, or those that “Got you here”, in Goldsmith’s words, aren’t enough. Leaders have to push themselves to keep learning, about their company, about the people, and critically, about themselves.


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