It happens all the time with my clients. As we talk, as we unfold, a sort of psychic bond gets formed. A paper I read recently talked about how much greater is the role of the unconscious than ever imagined before. And equally compelling, said the author, the unconscious leaps out of the mind of one and connects with the other; the boss sneezes and everyone catches a cold.
My client was talking about his overwhelming anxiety. It’d gotten so bad that he’d felt paralyzed—unable even to get to the office. Later, after working through those issues, I asked, “And how are your employees feeling?”
“Anxious, worried about running out of cash,” and the light bulb turned on, “…just like me.”
Yup, I thought, the CEO sneezes, the unconscious leaps from one to the other, feelings are contagious.
I remember when I was a young VC; I think even my hair was mostly black at the time. I was working almost daily for one of my portfolio companies (“Gone native,” as an elder VC put it to me later—but more on that in another post). I stood before the small, nascent team and present the product plan my team had developed. And, as soon as I stood up, the CEO, who’d been standing at the back of the room, turned and walked out.
I furiously called him on it. “I left,” he said, “because I knew I could trust you.” But your action sent the opposite message, I told him. You sent the message that what I was saying was unimportant. Achoo.
So what’s our responsibility as leaders, co-workers, spouses, companions, parents, children, and friends when our unconscious decides to telegraph a message we didn’t intend or spread a feeling we’d rather keep inside?
The question itself is dangerous because, if approached from the wrong angle it could induce a sense of responsibility for others’ feelings that-quite frankly– would emerge as a Monster in Your Head. Even the CEO isn’t responsible for how an employee feels about their job. But there is an undeniable, implicit shared mutality of experience (as one fourth grader in this amazing documentary about teaching feeling and empathy in a class room put it: when one of us is unhappy, we’re all unhappy).
The fact that we, as co-workers, co-create the emotional as well as the financial experience of the company makes this report from CNN remarkable. A client sent me the link and, after I got over the macabre satisfaction of having the purpose of my work affirmed, I was struck by the notion that the dominant emotional aliment felt by CEOs was loneliness.
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
Henry V—William Shakespeare
In other words, it sucks to be the king (or the CEO, or the boss, or the captain or whoever it is in whose hands we collectively place our feelings). And if this is the dominant feeling, and if we unconsciously infect others with our feelings, then is it any wonder that businesses are such lonely places?
Michael Carroll, after he wrote Awake at Work but before he published The Mindful Leader, published an article in which he says that “the best leadership first occurs from the inside out—offering to others a part of ourselves that inspires them.” Although he doesn’t make this explicit connection, he’s in effect suggesting making the unconscious sharing–the infecting, if you will–a conscious act:
“There is a fundamental human gesture that must take place first, before any leader can guide, direct, or point the way. Leaders must first open. They must step beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and routine and directly touch the people and environment they want to inspire. Leading others requires that we first open ourselves to the world around us.”
If he’s right about the need for inside out leadership, Carroll’s not only come up with an intriguing manifesto for leadership but an antidote to what ails the CEOs in all of us. The best way to overcome the inevitable loneliness of life at the top may be to connect and mindfully attend to the process that’s already underway—the unconscious sharing that undergirds every relationship.