The Psychological Blind Spots That Can Derail Your Career

Executive stress

This is a column for Business Insider Australia by organisational psychologist Paul Martin. More information at the foot of the article.

Through coaching senior leaders including CEOs for over two decades, I’ve seen some common psychological blind spots that directly impede on sustainable high performance.

One of the more insidious ones is some of the underlying assumptions and beliefs about what it takes to be a successful CEO or senior leader. This is the belief that in order to be successful, you have to defy what it means to be human and act in ways that are counter to the way our brains and bodies are hard-wired. The behavioural patterns that lead from these beliefs often lead to physical and mental burnout and in some cases psychological illness.

Whilst there are CEOs who have bucked the system and made necessary changes, there are many more who don’t, and suffer the consequences. You’ve probably seen or heard of someone who seemed invincible and like a performance machine. You might have even idolised them.

For those who took notice of their bodies and brains, they might have made it in the longer term. For those who defied what it means human you would have seen their sudden surprise departure or evidence of them losing it.

Paul MartinPaul Martin

That evidence includes long hours, being constantly available for work, the brain always switched to work mode no matter what, limited physical activity, poor sleep and eating habits, not talking about emotional responses to what is happening, not being able to perform family roles adequately, and too much alcohol.

All of these things are at times just a part of the package of being a senior leader and can be done quite successfully over a short period of time, however if these things are done consistently over the longer term, this is when the risks of falling over are very real.

The cost of doing this in the longer term can include difficulty with concentration, high levels of fatigue, negative moods including being snappy or feeling down, relationship break ups, family problems, decreased libido, increased periods of being sick, lower motivation and a desire to withdraw from social activities and things people would normally enjoy.

I’ve seen high functioning senior leaders suddenly become medically very ill, psychologically unstable, or suffer disorders such as chronic fatigue. To have a successful long term career in senior leadership roles including CEO positions, it is imperative that issues around mental and physical wellbeing are taken seriously and incorporated into your lifestyle in a way which is realistic and sustainable.

Understand your core beliefs about work

If you fall into the high risk category, it is important to identify the beliefs you have that might be driving you to engage in long term unhealthy behaviours. Beliefs are deeply held ways of viewing yourself, the world and others and directly influence your thinking, feelings and behaviours. If they are not identified, they continue to shape everything you do and you have very little power over them. Once discovered and challenged, you then have a choice as to whether to go along with them or not.

The worst thing is that when we are under the pressure, we can have a tendency to do the opposite to what is good for us.

The first step is to identify the beliefs you have about what it means to be successful as a CEO or senior leader. Some of the unhealthy beliefs can include:

  • I must work long hours and always be available
  • I am 100% married to my role and organisation and it takes priority over everything else including family, health and wellbeing
  • I must never show weakness or deficiencies
  • I should be available all the time even when I’m on holiday
  • I don’t have time or the energy to eat healthily
  • Drinking heavily is what most people do in senior roles to relax and just part of the turf
  • People mustn’t see who I really am, I need to be in ‘role’ all the time
  • Speaking about how I really feel during times of stress at times is a sign of weakness, I must always be seen as strong

What beliefs do you have about what it means to be a successful senior leader? What leaders have you seen who have modelled unhealthy behaviours? And which ones have you seen who have a healthier way of being a leader?

The belief that a CEO must not have any weaknesses or deficiencies and must always be 100% perfect again can have a significant impact. New trends in what’s being called “authentic leadership” embrace the idea that a CEO is human and experiences ups and downs as anyone else.

Once a leader can be open about their humanity in a way which doesn’t discredit them, this can add a depth of respect and admiration from their followers. It also sends out a strong message that everyone in the organisation can be honest and open about their feelings. This can do a lot to inhibit a culture of underlying conflict which only surfaces explosively rather than rationally along the way.

The brain works at its peak when you are able to ‘process’ emotions effectively. This means that when you have an emotion, such as sadness, hurt, guilt, shame, anger, or frustraion it needs to be cognitively identified and at some stage soon after it is expressed through emoting, talking or writing. Without doing anything with negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, sadness, hurt, guilt, shame and all of the others, they actually accumulate in your system and fill up your emotional tank to a point where they ‘leak out’. This is the part where you feel that you are not yourself anymore and people start noticing your changes in mood or behaviour.

The brain is hard wired to work very hard for a short period of time and then power down. So this means that if you’re working hard at something, your brain after around 90 minutes will want to reboot by taking a complete break from whatever you are doing and rest for a short period of time. It also does its best creative problem solving when you are not thinking about an issue. If you work hard on a problem and forget about it, the brain goes into an incubation phase and you’ll suddenly find the answer coming to you unexpectedly, say when you’re in the shower.

Know your warning signs

An important step in sustainable performance is to to know your own internal warning cues that something isn’t quite right. This can be broken down into emotional, behavioural, physical and cognitive cues. Everyone is different so it’s important to recognize your very own signs as we are not cookie cuttings of each other. For you it might mean being the perfect boss at work but snapping at the kids when your at home, feeling anxious, getting a sore neck and thinking negative thoughts about yourself and others. Most people have a combination of things that indicate there is a problem. But they adapt to it and ignore it.

Realistic longer term healthy change often doesn’t mean huge changes. It’s often best just to try these small things each day. This includes making sure you eat a broad a variety of foods as possible including foods which are good for your brain, moving your body so that your heart rate increases for about 20 minutes which might mean parking your car a distance from work, speaking about your feelings to a mate or partner so you drain your emotional tank, and take time out.

Sleep is one of the most important aspects of making sure our bodies and minds are at their peak to enable consistent performance. I’ve coached some leaders who weren’t aware of the importance of this and would have a glass of wine to help them sleep, wake up at 3am thinking of work and not being able to sleep. This can be a sign that you are too stressed and would benefit from walking a bit more or learning ways of switching off your brain.

Relationships are also critical for ongoing peak performance as they touch us in emotional places that nothing else can. If we don’t look after our relationships and issues gradually start occurring, this puts us at risk of being emotionally distracted by these things rather than feeling that this part of life is all good and we can just get on with it.

As humans our brains and bodies are hardwired in basically the same way — whether we are an ageing hippy in Nimbin or a CEO in Sydney – the same rules apply. So do a bit of an audit of your beliefs about what it means to be successful and work out whether they are driving you to behave in ways that are unhealthy.

Coaching is a highly effective way of being able to see yourself more objectively as our brains tend to go into defensive mode when thinking about these issues. Remember, it is the small steps each day in a more positive direction that make the difference and these are not only realistic but can lead to you being the leader you have always dreamed of in the long term.

Paul Martin is a psychologist and organizational consultant with over 25 years’ experience in a broad range of consulting roles. He has coached leaders and facilitated programs at all levels in private, corporate and Government sectors.

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