A couple of years ago I coached a client who worked at a high-end fashion company.

He knew he made a mistake taking the job on his first day.

The onboarding process consisted solely of being shown where his desk and chair was. Nobody came around to say hello or offer their help if he needed it. There was no training, no welcoming, no nothing.

He sat in his chair wondering what exactly he was supposed to do.

“Okay,” he realized, “I have to figure this out on my own.” And so began a trial-by-fire process to learn the ropes. Every time he made a mistake, his boss would come out from her office to scold him publicly. In fact, the only reason she ever emerged from her office was to scold him.

That was how he learned the job: by training himself, making an innocent mistake, and then being told he did it all wrong.

When his boss sat down with him for his first performance review she told him, “We’ve never had someone make this many mistakes before.”

This was actually a line she had used on each person who held his position before him. He later learned that his boss was getting the same hostile treatment from her own boss, the president of the company. The president treated everyone under him the same way, and an atmosphere of fear and shame pervaded the entire company.

[There was even spyware on every computer in case the president decided to arbitrarily see what any person was doing at any particular time.]

The reason I’m sharing this story is to show how deeply a leader’s behavior can propagate throughout an organization. How a leader relates to the people around them can set a precedent for the entire culture.

The Emotional Footprint

Most of us are familiar with the idea of our carbon footprint, and we try to take steps to reduce the negative impact of our lifestyle on the Earth.

We understand that if we throw garbage on the ground, drive a car that gets 5 miles per gallon, and never recycle, those choices will have a real impact on the environment that only compounds over time.

Most of us take steps to make sure we’re not unnecessarily destroying the Earth with our carbon footprint, but we might not realize we are leaving an emotional footprint too:

The effect that a person or company has on the work environment of an organization and its people.

An emotional footprint is the result of emotional contagion, be it positive or negative. As a leader, your emotions and the way you relate to the people around you affects the organizational environment, oftentimes in ways you might not anticipate.

It’s when the emotional footprint is negative that is cause for concern. Like an oil spill in a coral reef, toxic emotions or interpersonal practices from a leader can cause drastic damage to the balance of an organization.

Emotional contagion spreads like wildfire.

So many factors contribute to the emotional footprint impressed upon a people and an organization. Just like there is a variety of different ways to pollute the earth, there is a plethora of ways a leader can sour the emotional environment of an organization.

It can be small, ongoing things.

It could be a bad mood or a short temper. It could be nitpicking, micromanaging, and mistrust. It could be ego or an unwillingness to admit mistakes. It could simply be a harsh and unappreciative communication style.

Or it could be something extreme, like Jackie Bucia, who was the emotional equivalent of the BP oil spill for the automotive group she worked for. In 2011, Jackie asked her employee, Debbie, to give her a kidney. After Debbie underwent surgery and gave away her kidney, Jackie (allegedly) fired Debbie for not recovering quick enough from the surgery leaving Debbie without health insurance.

Actions like the above pollute the minds of the people in the organization, which causes unproductive group dynamics, a lack of trust, and a decline in creativity and collaboration.

For example, if the CEO treats all employees – regardless of status – with respect and appreciation, then that sense of equality and respect will diffuse throughout the organization.

If, on the other hand, the CEO acts like she is a queen and every other employee is her servant, the emotional atmosphere will be tense; the struggle for power will hinder people working together towards the common, organizational goals.

For a leader, it’s always a good idea to conduct an emotional footprint test, to gauge the overarching emotional vibe running through the organization.

Emotions spread like wildfire, and if you have an outbreak of negativity polluting the air you want to contain it before it destroys productivity and morale.

Keep an open door policy

The easiest and quickest way to feel the pulse of your organization is to promote a culture where people feel comfortable to speak their mind, and share their feelings.

Promote psychological safety. Create a comfortable environment where speaking your mind is accepted, and expected. Feeling safe to be vulnerable, to take risks, to just be, can be powerfully motivating. Google conducted 200+ interviews over the course of 2 years looking at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. They found the teams that had achieved psychological safety were the most successful.

Create a space where leaders accept feedback from employees, anyone can ask for help, and employees are allowed to make mistakes, especially when they are taking a risk or developing a new skill.

Check yourself before your wreck yourself

Leaders must maintain a healthy daily dose of self-awareness. Before you enter the workspace conduct a self-examination:

·     What kinds of thoughts are floating through your head?

·     Do you feel happy or sad?

·     Are you feeling introverted or extroverted?

·     Are you inspired, indifferent, or unenthusiastic about work?

Rest assured whatever is going on in your head is going to create a chain reaction. If you are stressed, frustrated, and angry at the world, those emotions will play out in the workplace and they will spread throughout your team.

Create a positive onboarding experience

Make the first impression the right one. When a new hire starts make them feel welcome. Get the team together and give your new member a chance to get to know everyone.

Sounds simple and yet it is overlooked more often than you’d think. Many leaders simply do not take the time to incorporate a positive onboarding experience, which in turn sets the tone for that new hire’s experience at said company.

Submit yourself to a 360-Degree Assessment

A 360-Degree assessment is a chance for your supervisors, direct reports, and peers to anonymously give you feedback about your strengths and weaknesses.

This is a very quick and easy – though not necessarily painless – way to get a snapshot of how your coworkers think of you.

Have the 360-Degree assessment be conducted by an executive coach or leadership development team to help analyze your feedback and develop a plan to improve upon the negative aspects of your personality or leadership style.

When it comes down to it, we’re talking about self-awareness, and widening the scope of your self-awareness isn’t always easy. It’s emotional, it’s personal, and directly confronts your ego. In the long run, however, you’ll be thankful you did it.

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Sometimes I like to go to the movies by myself because I only laugh if I truly find something funny and I might like a story that – were I with others – I might not otherwise like due to my subconscious perception of their reaction.

When we go to the movies with someone, we are swayed by their laughter or their mood, and that in turn colors our experience of what we are watching.

And isn’t that true for most of our group experiences in life?

Those around us often affect our moods, reactions, thoughts, and feelings. So it goes to reason that when we put ourselves into groups and teams in the workplace we will also be affected by the personalities that surround us.

Sometimes, teams gain their strength by being greater than the sum of their individual members. But group dynamics and social influence can cause far more problems than they solve.

Groups, whether they are an executive team or a religious cult, are susceptible to making decisions that none of the individuals involved would have chosen or condoned independently.

When it comes to why smart individuals make dumb group decisions there are four major factors.

1. Overconfidence

There comes a point when healthy confidence dips over the edge into overconfidence:

When we are excessively confident, to a fault, in our own abilities.

Overconfidence breeds arrogance, which can lead to faulty decision-making.

This is dangerous for anyone, but particularly for leaders. If we are so confident in ourselves that we disregard facts and/or insight that would benefit us, then we’re headed down a self-destructive path, and we are taking everyone down with us.

Interestingly, groups do not quell overconfidence; rather, individuals tend to grow more confident in groups.

One way this happens is through our cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias:

our propensity to seek out and weigh only the information that supports our beliefs or decisions.

In a group setting confirmation bias can play out in dangerous ways.

It’s much easier to share information with a group that supports the consensus or the new idea everyone likes. It’s much more difficult to be the “wet blanket” who has information or an opinion that goes against the group momentum.

On a larger scale, confirmation bias can begin with the formation of the group. For example, if I have an exciting but expensive idea for a new marketing campaign, I might not invite the budget-minded CFO for a discussion of my plan.

With a lack of dissenting voices and information, individuals in a group can grow more and more confident in the infallibility of their ideas and make poor decisions.

2. Common Knowledge

New ideas are hard to come by – and accept when brought to the table – but it’s even more difficult to take the risk and share a totally new idea with a group. This is why groups tend to rely on common knowledge when they get together to generate ideas.

It’s much easier to talk about that which you know already than that which you don’t.

Group members prefer to exchange information held in common because they receive more favorable reactions.

If you play it safe and stick to the status quo, you aren’t vulnerable, causing any anxiety, or potentially sounding like an idiot.

If, however, you are the sole member of a group with a new, innovative idea, the odds are against you.

When you present something that is unknown, unseen, and unproven, you can make people psychologically uncomfortable because they have to consider their biases and assumptions, critically think about the issue at hand, and have to decide whether or not they want to change (and people hate to change).

3. Groupthink

In the famous Asch conformity studies, participants are seated at a table with a few other people, whom they believe are fellow participants but are actually actors.

A researcher presents the group with cards like ones pictured below and asks the folks sitting at the table which line, A, B, or C, matches the height of the line on the left. The actors answer first, each going down the line and answering incorrectly, “A”. The participant then has to give his answer.

While the answer is obviously “C”, about 1/3 of people will conform to the actors’ incorrect answer.

Now, you might be thinking: “I would never conform and say the blatantly wrong answer!” However, what if instead of random actors answering the question before you, it was your boss and other members of the upper management at your company? Would you defiantly give your honest answer or would you conform to avoid rocking the boat?

We are social creatures, and our desire to maintain harmony, avoid conflict, and protect feelings can lead to extremely dysfunctional decision-making.

Irving Janis researched the phenomenon in 1972 and proposed that certain characteristics of groups tend to encourage groupthink:

  • Strong group cohesion
  • High levels of stress
  • Strong/directive group leader
  • Insulation from outside opinions
  • Isolations from other groups
  • Lack of norms for evaluating information

Groupthink undermines the long-term viability of the team as bad decisions pile up. The best, productive, and innovative teams will be ones where the members feel safe to speak their minds, throw out ideas, and negate or support one another without the fear of retribution, attack or dirty looks.

Teams should cultivate empathy, respect, and mutual support for all opinions so it is a safe place for risk-taking and expression.

People have different levels of comfort. Some naturally speak up, while others – who may have fantastic ideas – never do. Setting a rule in place to give every person time to talk in the group helps create the norm where everyone’s voice is heard.

It helps people practice who don’t normally speak up have their voice heard; it helps those who always speak up practice listening; and it creates a norm where everyone’s voice is important.

Counteracting the Traps

  1. Establish Group Diversity – Uniformity tends to breed lackluster results. Groups thrive when opinions from different genders, age groups, and ethnicities are welcome.
  2. Define Expectations – Knowing what’s expected of a group can help the group stay on track. Expectations support accountability as well, since the group members can’t deny they didn’t know what the goal was.
  3. Emphasize Collective Awareness – Understanding common group biases helps to keep them at bay. The group should know their weaknesses and how to spot them.
  4. Provide the Right Training – Teamwork training is essential and often overlooked. Team members need to understand how their role fits into the larger group identity and feel comfortable with their position.
  5. Stress Freedom of Thought – Individuals can do their own research and thinking before meeting with the group. Leaders should stress that all ideas are welcome, no matter how far out or strange they might seem.
  6. Insist on Information Sharing – It’s imperative that everyone in a group list all of the information in their possession that relates to an issue. It’s the only way to get the best results.
  7. Promote Innovation – A good leader stimulates people to climb over the mental fence that can keep a group from devising, openly discussing, and adopting new ideas and solutions.
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