On any given day, go into any office, anywhere, and you’ll most likely find some kind of psychological drama being played out. Every organization has its share of trust issues, complicated relationships, power struggles and deceptions.
Navigating these matters can be enough to give many managers anxiety issues.
But when it comes to leadership, a grasp of psychological issues, and of the unspoken things that happen between people in organizations, can be particularly important.
“Leadership is not as complicated as people think,” says Jack Denfeld Wood. “It's not particularly mysterious, but it is deeply psychological.”
Denfeld Wood is a practicing psychoanalyst, but also a professor of management practice at the Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). He says that psychological insights can give managers a better understanding of human behavior, and thus, make them more effective leaders.
Effective leaders, Denfeld Wood says, “have a vision and they motivate their followers. How do they motivate their followers? Rationally? No. Emotionally.”
A number of executive education programs leverage psychological insights to help managers develop their leadership skills.
CEIBS, for instance, offers two different three-day executive education courses in this area: “The Psychology of Coaching Teams and Leading Organization” and “Managerial Psychology in Practice.” These look at a range of topics not typically covered in many management courses, such as dynamics of interpersonal relationships, conflict management, and employee motivation.
The week-long “Essentials of Effective Management: The Psychology of Management” at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, covers core management topics, such as decision-making and critical thinking, as well as more behavior-oriented curriculum, like expectation management and cooperation. This program, like many others in this space, is taught by a team of professors with expertise in behavioral studies and psychology.
Konstantin Korotov, who is a professor of organizational behavior at Germany’s ESMT European School of Management and Technology, says that the human behavior aspect is a main part of the three-day “Leading with Psychological Intelligence” program, which he teaches on.
“We try to distill what psychology has told us about human behavior in general,” Korotov says, “and then we select the aspects that might be particularly important for organizations.”
As an example, Korotov notes that when making decisions, managers often don’t consider that they may have their own biases, and leaving these biases unaddressed can negatively affect teams and projects. So the program examines some of the well-known biases in how people make decisions, and then participants explore these biases by playing a game, which can reveal how they themselves may make judgment errors.
“Then there is a discussion about how to minimize the impacts of those biases in daily operations,” Korotov says, “where a team has to make decisions.”
The goal of these kinds of activities and others (participants also put on an improvisational theater show) is essentially to take leaders out of their normal environment so that they can better understand their coworkers and themselves.
“The major takeaway,” Korotov says, “is increased self-awareness.”
Trying on different lenses
Around five years ago, Qi Zhang, while a business manager at a life sciences firm, attended “Building on Talent,” a four-week long leadership development program offered by Switzerland’s IMD Business School. The program covers both the cognitive side of management, with courses in subjects like marketing and strategy; as well as the psychological and emotional aspects of leadership.
Zhang says that today, she can’t remember what exactly was covered in the cognitive part of the program, but the psychological pieces have stuck with her.
“It had such a big impact on me,” Zhang says. “It helped me to understand me, on an individual level.”
In particular, Zhang feels that the program helped her see the world from different perspectives.
“I can put on a different lens, and see the same thing from a different angle,” she says.
Zhang says that these psychological insights have helped her more easily identify and work with the unspoken aspects of what happens in organizations on a day-to-day basis.
“Behaviorally, we are driven by our own deep stuff that we might not even be aware of,” Zhang says, and “that impacts teamwork.”
“In that sense I can be more effective in a team.”
Today, Zhang uses some of these insights in her current role as an executive coach. “I believe there is a big grey area between psychiatry, psychology, and coaching,” she says.
Armed with an understanding of psychology and human behavior, Zhang says she can better serve as a “mirror” for her clients, so that they can better see their own strengths and weaknesses.
“They can look into the mirror and see what they really stand for,” Zhang says, “and what kind of limitations they might have merely because of their lenses.”