It took me about twenty five years before I started to perceive my mother as a human being.
I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that I’m not alone.
We don’t always perceive people as human beings.
“Then how do we perceive them?” you may ask.
As a means to our end.
As a teenager, I often perceived my mother as a means to permission, money, and food. She was the means to me going out with my friends, buying things I wanted, or eating breakfast, dinner, and sometimes even lunch.
Horrible, I know…
Of course, I intellectually understood that I should feel gratitude towards her for giving birth to me and for raising me. Unfortunately, those were rarely visceral experiences. So most of the times, I perceived her as mere means to my end.
The same holds true in our perception of our leaders.
I was once an employee myself. In some ways, I still am to my clients. I have also spent a significant amount of time listening to employees inside organizations as their meta-designer. In this journey, I’ve noticed at least threeinter-related lenses through which we perceive our leaders as mere means to our ends.
1. As a means to our survival: “I joined this company, because I need financial security. I keep my leader happy to meet this need.”
- When we perceive our leaders as a means to our survival, they are an object of authority. Through that lens, we tend to latch on to every literal word they say, because it can potentially threaten our survival. A common symptom of this is when we interpret a passing and even humorous comment or suggestion they make as either an order or as a representation of our company’s values and vision.
2. As a means to achieving our goal: “I joined this company to make cool things that make an impact in the world. The leader will help me achieve that goal.”
- When we perceive our leaders as a means to achieving our goals, they are an object of either our aid or obstacle. Through that lens, we tend to feel entitled to judge them, because it’s clear to us whether they are aiding us well enough or downright getting in our ways. A common symptom of this is when we spend an exorbitant amount of time talking about how wonderful we are compared to how bad our leaders are. According to Dr. Goldsmith, on average, 65% of all interpersonal communications in companies involve talking about (or listening to someone talk about) how smart, special, or wonderful we are and how stupid, inept, or bad someone else is.
3. As a means to our identity: “We have such an amazing leader! The leader is my role model!” or “We have such a horrible leader! The leader is my anti-role model!”
- When we perceive our leaders as a means to our identity, they are an object to be either copied or rebelled against. Through that lens, everything they say or do is something we aspire to replicate or differentiate ourselves from. A common symptom of this is when we side with our leaders to argue against the fresh perspective of a new team member or when we side with a new team member against our leader.
Instead of judging these lenses as good/bad or right/wrong, I want to highlight how they give rise to misunderstandings inside organizations.
1. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of authority, we’re likely to interpret their suggestions as promoting compliance. If we end up feeling repulsed by these interpretations, we’re also likely to distance ourselves from our leaders.
- Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage autonomy and self-direction. Sometimes even to connect with their team members through said suggestions. I find this akin to my mother saying things to me casually or with the intention of connecting with me, while I would merely interpret them as coercive or offensive. I just thought an authority figure should know to do better.
2. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of our aid or obstacle, we’re likely to interpret their decisions as short-sighted and selfish.
- Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to make decisions for the company’s long-term sustainability and the well-being of the team. I find this akin to my mother making difficult decisions for the long-term benefit of our family and my well-being. Without having been part of the honest emotional struggles of the decision making process, I had no other choice, but to interpret her decisions as short-sighted and selfish.
3. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object to be copied or rebelled against, we’re likely to interpret their communication efforts as a form of indoctrination.
- Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage creativity and critical thinking. It’s also often the case that the communication efforts came from a place of worry. Worry of their team making a mistake or getting lost. I find this akin to my mother telling me what I should do in the future and what she thinks are the important things in life. She was saying these things because she was worried I may get hurt or lost, while I just thought she was trying to get me to think like her.
Once again, instead of judging right/wrong or good/bad, I want us to recognize that these misunderstandings are born out of the inherent difficulties of seeing through the eyes of others. It’s too simplistic to judge them as a result of poor leadership.
It’s true that some less experienced leaders try so hard to be equal that they have more trouble seeing themselves as their team members see them. At the same time, experienced leaders can also have the same blind spots. What’s important to note is that we can all develop the skills required to better prepare for and manage these blind spots by learning to realize our empathy.
Now that I’m in my 40s, I find that things have changed since I was 25. I am more likely to perceive my mother as beyond mere means to my end. I also interact with her in ways that are mutually empathic. Is it perfect? No. I’m happy that it is simply possible.
It all started with noticing myself shaming or blaming my mother, then gradually learning to choose a different set of contexts with which to interpret her words and behaviors.
Are we also willing to do the same with our leaders?
Some are. Some are not. For those willing, here’s a question you can ask yourself to get started.
“If I were unafraid of getting fired or judged, and wanted to use all the creativity and critical thinking I had to help the leader clarify and achieve the organization’s goals instead of my own, what would be the smallest next step I need to take?”
To be clear, you may say you’d rather leave the company. That is your choice. I just hope you’ll choose a better alternative than staying stuck shaming or blaming your leader. That isn’t helping anybody. As the saying goes…
“Holding on to resentment is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else.”
May you let go of the hot coal.
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Photo credit to Shawn Harquail