Recently I worked with a team that had a particularly insecure leader. As I observed him in action, and talked to co-workers, it quickly became apparent that he lacked self-awareness. When he spoke to his team, people cringed at his not-so-subtle attempts at self-promotion. He was constantly trying to prove his success to others. But he had no idea people were experiencing him this way. He micro-managed people, blew up at employees over seemingly minor things, and generally created conflict wherever he went.
This leader exhibited many of the beliefs of a negative or insecure worldview. These beliefs are important because the most ineffective, “self-focused” leaders habitually demonstrated these beliefs in a recent large-scale study and book called Return on Character by Fred Kiel.
Beliefs Underlying Negativity
This negative worldview includes 11 beliefs that are rooted in emotional insecurity. The key underlying beliefs of this worldview can be grouped into three categories: self, others, and goals.
- It’s not important to understand what drives me.
- Personal meaning is derived from proving my success to others.
- People are generally untrustworthy, so you should closely monitor them and not show kindness.
- Creating conflict helps you get at the truth of a situation.
- It’s better to focus on the short-term than the long-term.
- It’s better to avoid change unless I am in control of it.
Implicit Relational Knowledge
These beliefs are rooted in a lack of basic trust, lack of self-awareness, and lack of a positive sense of self-worth, which lead a person to constantly seek approval through achievements (an understandable coping strategy that doesn’t work in the long run). They are deep-seated beliefs that represent what psychologists call “implicit relational knowledge.” This is a form of experiential knowledge about how relationships work that is stored in a gut level form of memory called implicit memory.
Beliefs Underlying Positivity
The beliefs of a positive worldview are also deep-seated, but of a different order. The key beliefs of this worldview in the same three categories include the following:
- Personal meaning is derived from growing and stretching my natural talents.
- People are generally trustworthy.
- All people deserve the same respect, regardless of job status.
- Most people grow and change throughout their adult life (similar to what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”).
- Everyone has core strengths that should be engaged.
- The best managers have good relationship skills.
- All businesses share a responsibility to contribute to the common good.
- Leaders generally desire to leave the world a better place.
Here is how Kiel summarizes: “While many seem to associate a negative and pessimistic attitude regarding human nature, personal purpose, and organizational life with the savviness of success, that idea couldn’t be more wrong. The Virtuoso leaders in our study clearly illustrate that the most successful leaders focus on what’s right about the world around them.” (p. 72).
Negative or Positive? Which Worldview Do You Hold?
So, do you hold a positive or negative worldview? It’s probably not an either-or, but reflecting on the various beliefs in each worldview can help you determine where your strengths and growth areas are in terms of your core beliefs. And it turns out that your worldview, consisting of deep beliefs, shapes and drives your relationships and behavior, and ultimately your impact, whether through informal influence, or a formal leadership position.
4 Ways to Foster a Positive Leadership Worldview
Here are 4 ways to foster a positive leadership worldview.
1. Become aware of your filters and develop new lenses for noticing the positive.
The first thing you need to understand is that you don’t rationally choose these beliefs. As I mentioned above, they are implicit, meaning they develop and operate outside your conscious awareness. You can, however, proactively do things to change them and develop a more positive worldview. It starts with becoming aware that you have filters and then noticing them in action.
Notice that a lot of these beliefs Kiel uncovered are about people and how relationships work. Our relational filters are formed in early relationships with attachment figures and called “internal working models” in attachment theory.
Trust is the Key relational filter
The key relational filter here has to do with trust. If you find yourself habitually not trusting others at work in particular ways, it’s likely that important people in your life have not been trustworthy in these ways. Maybe your father never followed through on plans. If this was a pattern, it forms a filter, which is basically a gut-level expectation of how relationships work. And now, let’s say your co-worker, George, has shared plans for a new project, and he’s asking you to sacrifice some resources from your team to help make it happen. You don’t trust that he’ll come through. And you find yourself avoiding the situation or passively sabotaging it.
The important thing is to reflect on your filters from your relational history and begin to recognize when they are operating in your current work and personal relationships. The more you recognize these filters operating, the more it frees you up to see the current situation more flexibly and from different perspectives. When you own, at an emotional level (and this is key), that some of your difficulty trusting George is due to your own relational history, you’ll be more free to see George for who he is, and to respond more flexibly.
As you start to do this more, the next step is to intentionally notice the positive worldview events when they occur. How did you grow and experience meaning the last time you stretched your talents? Who has demonstrated trustworthiness in your workplace recently? How did people respond? How have people responded to being shown respect and dignity? Noticing and reflecting on these types of positive events will begin to re-shape your filters so you see them more readily and embrace them wholeheartedly.
2. Seek out new experiences that challenge your implicit negative beliefs.
You can’t directly change your worldview, but you can seek out new experiences that create the conditions for change. Here’s one example. Maybe you’re struggling with a project trying to lone-ranger it, because, after all, you are the only person you can really trust. Try this experiment: Admit to your team your struggles and your limitations. Be honest and vulnerable, and ask for help. I think you will see that many people will respond and be helpful and this will reinforce a positive worldview.
3. Reflect on new experiences that challenge your beliefs.
Why did they challenge your beliefs? What did you learn? Reflection crystallizes and internalizes your learning. Experiences without reflection will have some impact, but not the full impact that is possible. Maximize your growth by reflecting on these experiences and incorporating them into your ever-more-coherent personal story.
4. Connect with people who speak into your life with wisdom and compassion.
For your relational filters, the most powerful kind of new experiences you can have are new experiences of deep relational connection. Seek out and create connections with mentors and peers who are willing to invest in you. Reflect with them on your experiences and ask for their input. This requires vulnerability and trust. But it’s well worth the risk. Positive relational connections are the bedrock of a positive worldview. Also, don't just focus on what you can get from these relationships; focus also on how you can give. Both are important for healthy relationships that cause growth. Give freely and receive humbly.
I hope these practices help you move toward a positive worldview that will elevate your positive impact!
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