The Leader As Psychologist

“I just want to run a business. Do I have to be a psychologist, too?”

Yes you do.

How can you expect to run a business effectively without understanding how your most important assets work?  (That’s right — your employees.)

We work with many leaders who wish their employees’ needs, desires, motivations, fears, and learning styles would just “go away.”  In their perfect world, employees would respond simply and predictably to the needs of the business — like gears in a machine.

But they don’t, and they won’t.  Treating an employee like a machine won’t make him one.  Leaders who are deaf to their employees’ psychology create organizations that underperform.

A quick distinction here:  I’m not talking abnormal psych or psychiatry here. They deal with mental illness or deep dysfunction. That’s not the leader’s role. When an employee is suffering from a complex mental problem that interferes with their functioning or their relationships, the leader must suggest expert help.

So what does it mean to understand psychology at work? It might be simpler than you think. A few tips:

  • Read about human behavior and brain science. For example, check out Brain Rules by John Medina. (I will tell you about this book in an upcoming post.)
  • Learn to listen. There is no better way to improve your psychological understanding than to truly, deeply listen to the people around you, without pre-conceived assumptions or judgments, and without overlaying your experience on theirs.  Everyone sees “reality” through their own filters, so there’s always more to the story than what appears on the surface. Leaders who deeply listen have a real impact on the lives  — and productivity — of those they work with.
  • Be a student of your own psychology: What are your motivations, strengths, blind spots, values, beliefs, and work styles? How do you react under stress? What types of relationships do you enjoy and which do you find challenging?
  • Ask why.  Many managers get frustrated or angry about behavior they don’t understand or approve of. Avoid this trap by seeking reasons people act the way they do.  (And bring a tone of curiosity to it.  The question, “Why did you do that?” can easily be heard as confrontational, and can shut people down.) Start by ascribing the best possible motivation to their intentions.  We make assumptions at great risk to ourselves and others.
  • Be a coach. Effective coaching demands a grounding in psychology. It’s all about stepping into the other’s reality to help them make healthy changes, sustainably. To truly be a coach requires extensive training, but any positive engagement with an employee increases your understanding of each other and your ability to work together effectively.
  • Understand that no two people see the world the same way. This may seem obvious, but subconsciously we tend to assume that everyone has the same perspectives, experiences, or brain structure that we have. Acknowledging and honoring each person’s individuality is essential for any good psychologist.

I have seen a few effective business leaders who did not understand psychology, but they could only succeed surrounded by a team that did take care of the emotional needs of the organization. Almost every leader who is successful over the long term has a deep curiosity about the human condition and about why people do the things they do.

About the Author

Jim Hessler
Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.

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