When being a superwoman isn’t so super
Today I want to talk about a manager whose sparking reputation became a burden.
To put the story into context I first need to establish a psychological concept – namely cognitive bias. For those of you who have not come across this term before, cognitive bias is a psychological pattern that results in a person's subjective image of the world around them deviating from reality.
Any good psychologist should be aware of their own biases and thanks to a triple digit number of hours spent on the analysis couch and countless supervision sessions, I like to think I am fairly vaccinated. But I'm not completely immune, as the story below reveals.
A few years ago myself and a manager, who I will call Angela, met for a series of coaching sessions. I had heard good things about her and was impressed in our first meeting. She struck me as judicious and she displayed a sense of responsibility as well as solution orientation.
In December it was time to meet again for a new round of sessions. The reason was because Angela worked in an organisation that was suffering from the consequences of a change process that had not gone according to plan. Recurring readers may recall this blog post where I wrote: "It will cost millions and you will have to deal with the aftermath for years to come." That post was inspired by the organisation where Angela works and in December we discovered that my prophecy had unfortunately come true. To protect the anonymity of all those involved let’s just say the situation resembled a TV reality show, filled with intrigue and conspiracy. If you imagine pouring all that drama in a workplace and then multiplying it by ten, you have a good idea of the problem we faced.
After the situation was explained to me I investigated what support Angela was getting from her manager. It turned out it wasn’t as much as she needed. The irony was that her manager had a very positive view of Angela. Whenever she raised issues she was met with encouraging statements such as “you can fix this!” and "I have great faith in you!" These statements struck right at the heart of Angela's being a responsible person. On top of that she also knew her manager had a lot to do and she didn’t want to add insult to injury.
As I listened to her story I began to reflect on the extent to which I had inadvertently contributed to this situation. In conversations with her manager over the years I had also praised Angela. How would the manager have acted if I had been a little more nuanced and suggested that even though Angela is a rock she still needs support, just like any other colleague? Then I thought about how I related to Angela in our present conversation and it dawned upon me that I connected more to my inner image of her and less to the person in front of me. I realised there were passages of the conversation that revealed feelings of pain and resignation that I had not picked up on to the extent I should have.
The crime of cognitive bias I had committed is called the halo effect. In this case I created an unconscious idea of a woman with superpowers. Given her manager’s attitude towards her, my hypothesis is that the manager was similarly affected by the halo effect. I spoke about my reflections with Angela and we realised that she was caught in a paradox where the positivity of those around her was actually not helping her. In fact, the contrary.
Angela's conclusion was that it was time to stop trying to live up to the fantasy image of a superwoman and start making more demands on her manager. My lesson was to return to the revered Freud's advice on how to relate to clients: To strive for evenly suspended attention where you listen unconditionally. It is a skill I need to remind myself about before each new client meeting.
If you are curious whether you have any biases you apply yourself, here’s a long list of possible candidates. Can you find any that affect your leadership?
The clients who reach out to me are managing directors, management teams, and executives who want to realise the potential in their organisations and accomplish extraordinary results. They reach out to me because of my ability to transform individuals, teams, and organisations.