Keep your head in the present

Learning & Development Magazine

Past experiences can cloud the judgement of senior executives, warns Stephen Schneider

Executives at all levels within organisations will often overlay the present with their experience of the past.

This is a normal aspect of human behaviour. However, for senior level individuals, particularly in leadership roles, it can cloud judgement.

Consider the FTSE 250 managing director who, in his early childhood, experienced great trauma as his parents’ relationship broke down; they separated and subsequently they divorced. During this period he took on the role of holding warring factions together, developing finely honed inter-personal skills, in an attempt to act as peacemaker.

Now, however, in his leadership role, he finds it hard to live with the natural tension between the powerful personalities around the top table where conflict and confrontation are normal fare; indeed, such conflict and confrontation is often very healthy and can produce more effective decision-making and better results.

A person with such a background may have an innate fear of conflict, interpreting the hard-talking and confrontational style around the boardroom table as negative and threatening. Their challenge is to see the present for what it is and not allow it to be distorted by unconscious memories of the past. This would enable our managing director to recognise that conflict in the boardroom was not necessarily 'a bad thing', but could potentially lead to better outcomes.

HR professionals can help these individuals learn how to separate memories of the past that are no longer relevant from the reality of the present and thus help them become more effective in their leadership role.

Consider next the finance director of a well-known property company. She was the first in her family to go to university and was brilliantly qualified. One might assume this to be a very positive aspect of her life. However, this was not the case. As with many individuals with similar backgrounds, she felt fearful of outshining one or both parents, who had not been fortunate enough to go to university, and as a result was unconsciously undermining her own performance. This syndrome, commonly known as ‘envy pre-emption’ describes a situation where an individual fears another person's envy, real or imagined, and consequently reduces their own capacity to perform to avoid having to deal with it.

Working with us over a period of time, the finance director was able to explore her belief that her parents were envious of her success, however much they said otherwise. She learned that her fears were just that – fears. As it happened, in reality, her parents were pleased with her achievements and, by removing this self-imposed block, she was able to improve her performance dramatically.

In both these case studies, the senior HR professional played a key role in engaging the individual, helping them confront their issues, and encouraging them to find external professional support.

Those who have been reading this series of articles will know that this is a key theme: the opportunity for HR professionals to make a real difference by being prepared to take on powerful personalities in top roles and encourage them to work on their effectiveness as business leaders.

Organisations whose HR professionals are prepared and able to take up the challenge – and who actively seek to employ human resources professionals able to succeed in the task – will be the ones to benefit most from the true potential that a good HR function has to offer.