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Female stood in front of team presenting

Unconscious Leadership

Tim Cox
October 21, 2020

“The behaviours that influence others, and by which we are ourselves influenced, are primarily generated at an unconscious level.”

- attribution unknown

One of the things I enjoy most in my role is the opportunity to explore interesting topics with interesting people.

At a recent MF Round Table discussion we explored 'unconscious leadership'.

The concept is that the unconscious behaviours leaders use can create unintended, though significant, impact on individuals within an organisation and indeed on an overall organisational culture.

It was raised through the lens of flexible working, and the pitfalls this can create for unconscious ‘presenteeism’ messages from leaders. For example, a leader might consciously and enthusiastically extoll flexible working as an aid to employee wellbeing, whilst simultaneously contacting people late at night, or by being available for calls and meetings during their own holidays. This can create pressure on staff to behave in the ways their leaders are exemplifying, rather than following the ‘policy’ messages. At the very least the impact of the conflicting messages can create uncertainty and dissonance.

Do what I do, not what I say – is the message that truly sticks.

The disconnect between ‘What I say’ and ‘What I do’ can be stark.

I’ve experienced many examples of leadership that flips, in seconds, from extolling the virtues of ‘empowered leadership’ to a ‘JFDI’ approach. I vividly remember a senior central government figure introducing a one-day ‘Coaching Skills for Leaders’ programme to a hall of 200 people from his department. He delivered a five-minute lecture on the merits of a non-directive approach. He drilled into them how important the day was, and how they must embrace the approach and the skill set involved. He made it extremely clear they had to fully engage in the day.

It was a little over the top and a little too directive for my tastes; there was a definite irony in his delivery style. I was impressed though by his passion and commitment to the training. However, the mild dissonance I was experiencing turned to stark dismay when he wrapped up his introduction by saying… “Anyway, I’m off to an important meeting now”, before jumping down from the stage; marching through the assembled leaders and out of the hall, leaving the double doors swinging and banging behind him. A contrast indeed to the stunned silence within the hall itself.

The unintended behavioural message was received loud and clear.

My turn next… “Good morning…”!

Not all unconsciously generated behaviours will so dramatically undermine the consciously-intended message. However, lower-voltage conflicting messages can still create significant impact. Micro-behaviours – raised eyebrows, interruptions, a dominant handshake, a half-turned shoulder – can have long-lasting negative affect on trust, motivation and engagement.

And what of the impact on others?

In my story above, the mismatch between ‘say’ and ‘do’ was completely clear. It was literally on stage, bright lights shining on it, bathing it in glory. The impact was palpable, powerful and shared by all. It was talked about by the course participants throughout the day.

What is the impact though of the less dramatic but dissonant micro-behaviours leaders might unconsciously exhibit? Experts in the field of Evolutionary Psychology claim leaders are hard-wired to exhibit them as means of achieving, or reinforcing, social dominance. The social impact of these ‘boss’ micro-behaviours can be significant. Specifically, they can be rewarding for the perpetrators and punishing for the recipient.

The following are extracts from a paper penned by Robert B. Kaiser.

“Physiological studies of dominance hierarchies in primates (phylogenetic) indicate that a change in social status causally affects neurotransmitters associated with affect, stress, and tissue health (e.g., Sapolsky, 2005; Sapolsky & Jay, 1989; Schaller, 1963). As organisms rise in rank within their groups (proximate), a rush of serotonin triggers brain circuitry that favors a more positive interpretation of environmental stimuli, enhances self-confidence, and decreases vascular resistance. Conversely, a loss of social rank instigates the release of cortisol which engenders a less hopeful outlook, diminishes self-confidence, and promotes tissue degeneration.”

This suggests there are some serious evolutionary incentives for leaders to elevate themselves at the expense of others, whether they are conscious of this or not.

The impact of this behaviour on the recipients is worrying. The research suggests such ‘boss’ behaviours can adversely affect mental health, social confidence, and ultimately physical health. However, the paper goes on to suggest these behaviours may have a survival purpose for social groups.

“Furthermore, these effects accumulate over time (ontogenetic). The functional role (ultimate) of this process appears to be establishing equilibrium and preventing chaos within the group: were there no such effects, today's loser would be tomorrow's challenger and tomorrow's winner would face yet another challenger, ad naseum. This would destabilize any group, making it easy prey and vulnerable to the vagaries of ecological change (Bloom, 1997).”

Fascinating and worrying. We need to confront and deal with this phenomenon if we want to encourage people to step up, contribute in teams, collaborate fully and improve their wellbeing. With this in mind, finding ways to raise greater awareness in leaders of the impact of their unconscious behaviours seems critical.

I did not see the leader who leapt from the stage again.

I believe their behaviour was unconscious, or at least not by design. They’d arisen early that day, travelled hundreds of miles to open the event and invested precious time and money.  

I wish I had spoken to them. Racing after them through the swinging, banging doors wasn’t an option.

Still, I wish I’d found a way to follow up and offer feedback on the impact of their actions.

Next time.


Presented in R.B. Kaiser (Chair), Leadership and Evolutionary Psychology: New Perspectives on an Old Topic. Symposium at the 21st Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Dallas, TX, May, 2006.

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