Once again, our most recent virtual coffee meet was host to one of the brightest minds Ireland has to offer.
We were honoured to be joined by Professor Patrick Ryan, Associate Vice President-Student Engagement at the University of Limerick. He has worked in the University of Limerick since 2005, first as Director of Clinical Psychology, then as Head of the Department of Education & Professional Studies and latterly as Head of the Department of Psychology. In 2019, he became a Fellow of The Psychological Society of Ireland.
Patrick is also a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and has been in practice for 25 years. His area of expertise is self-performance management and making sense of trauma. Needless to say, he knows our minds better than we do.
As you’ll know from our series on behavioural biases, we’re fascinated by the way that our minds subconsciously drive our behaviours and affect our decisions, particularly when it comes to business and investments. So this was a real treat.
“Achievement is not about whether you’ve made efficiencies and increased profits and got good customer feedback or whatever it is. Ultimately, achievement is something about what you feel inside after having come through a process.”
– Professor Patrick Ryan
What does achievement look and feel like to you? Is it winning that huge new contract, or hitting a financial milestone? Is it ticking off everything on your to-do list in a day, or hearing a sincere thank you from a client?
You can win all the awards, you can make a ton of profit, you can buy all the things that money can bring. These things all signal achievement in some way. But, as Patrick emphasises, it’s the feeling inside that determines whether you feel you’ve achieved something.
“Achievement has to have a particular meaning to you,” he says, “in addition to purpose, intent, a set of goals behind it, and a set of activities and behaviours. Unless it has meaning, it really just feels shallow. And that’s not a problem once every so often, but it becomes a problem psychologically over the long term when achievement only feels real and meaningful when it represents some form of very big personal investment.”
Not only do achievements need to feel authentic and connected to the individual, they also need to be noticed and praised. As leaders, we have a responsibility to identify and celebrate the achievements of our team. But we must also be mindful that if we only recognise achievements which are competitive-based it brings in a defensive, psychological response – the team learns to become busy watching the threat from their competitor.
Find what feels good
As business leaders, we all know about the importance of being successful and continually achieving. But it’s quite a difficult task. To be good achievers and to strive for excellence is really hard work. There’s so much that goes into it, and it’s why we feel exhausted.
“If we don’t mind ourselves,” Patrick warns, “if we don’t actively and proactively take care of who we are as individuals, eventually we burn out, or we get sick, or we lose motivation, or we fail to problem solve in a way that’s useful and coherent. This is why we get so tired.”
One of the most helpful things you can do to set a positive example to your team is to openly own your achievements as equally as your failures. Acknowledge the hard work behind them. Very often, success is framed in terms of external forces – luck, chance, fate, other people – whereas failure tends to be internalised and viewed as personal fault. This thinking pattern is common and it sabotages achievement. We know that it’s skill, talent, and planning abilities which create success.
Be mindful of the language and framing you and your team use around achievements versus failures. Normalise saying “you worked hard on this and it paid off”, rather than “well that was lucky”.
Charm on, charm off
Charisma is one of those nebulous terms that everybody knows the importance of but nobody can quite pin down. It’s an essential element of a successful and inspiring leader, but the true value is in knowing when to use it and reign it in.
Patrick explained that charisma used wrongly drains the emotional energy of those around you. “Be very wary about the type of charisma that you need to use,” he advises. “When you’re convincing the bank manager to give you a loan to set up a new business, that’s fine. But if you’re charismatic all the time with everybody in your team, you’re consuming energy when there’s no need to.”
Know when you need lots of noise and energy and activity and motivation, then know when you need some silence and some quiet so that people can get creative and manage their energy. Managing energy actually requires less energy; managing people is awfully exhausting and tiring.
Very highly charismatic people often only see the world through their own lens. Their charm and charisma mean that people are drawn to agree with them; but this comes at the expense of being a good team player, and at the expense of the challenge and discussion which informs actual progress. Leaders with greater humility often display better strategic thinking and are better able to boost the performance of others. That’s because they spend more time outside of themselves, standing away and looking back in to see what’s going on.
Doctor doctor, I’ve got a bad case of charisma
Patrick gave an example I’m sure we can all recognise. You’re leading a big meeting. You look around the table, and everyone is nodding yes to something you’ve suggested with no additional input. “That worries me big time,” he says. “We need to reduce group-think.”
So in this scenario, what can you do as a leader? It’s your job to make sure all perspectives are held and given space, and to encourage the team to feel empowered to challenge you. Good leaders have an approach-oriented ethos. That means that they’ll invite people into the circle rather than push people away. Patrick suggests you pick somebody and ask them to counter-argue with you for five minutes, even if they don’t think they disagree. Let the room know that you want to hear them chip in, too, as you counter-argue.
If you encourage input and actively hear their perspective it affirms to them that they are important within the team. Typically, if outcome goals are owned by people in tune with yourself, the achievement becomes full of personal meaning and people are more likely to work towards it. You’re more likely to reach successful and meaningful outcomes together.
Good leaders are able to hold conflicting positions all the time and can deliberately put that on show for people. Being able to hold contradictory, paradoxical positions reflects the diversity in your team and your organisation. Let your team see the messy and varied processes that allow you to come to a decision. When they can see, understand and be a part of the process, the decision you arrive at will be more respected and feel more representative of the team as a whole. Remember that personal buy-in that each team member needs to feel.
In the safety announcements on a plane as it prepares for take-off, the flight attendants always tell you to affix your own oxygen mask before helping others. And whether they intended it or not, that is an excellent metaphor for life. You can’t be a great and supportive leader to your team until you are a great and supportive leader to yourself.
Lots of particularly successful leaders are likely to have a little bit of that anxiety about ‘doing’, about taking the gamble, which causes us to externally attribute successes and failures. And we’ve already seen how that can become a toxic cycle. It’s as important for you to internalise your own successes as it is for your team to.
In psychology, this practice of acknowledging, critiquing and understanding our own thought processes is called ‘metacognitive capacity’. It’s asking “how do I think about how I think?”
So how does one manage their mind? It’s less about action and more about relating to your own thoughts. “You need to play with it and have fun with all the stuff that goes on, particularly the bad stuff,” Professor Patrick advises. “You need to feed it physically and by refreshing it. You need to feed it by stimulating it. And every so often you need quiet. Your mind is an amazing place, but it needs time to settle and do its own thing.”
Once you’ve done all that, mind yourself. “Look after your feelings, look at the language you use for yourself. How compassionate are you with your talk? Are you a harsh critic or are you kind and gentle? Mind your body. Mind your spirit – that part of you that’s really difficult to put a finger on but is what makes you, you. You’ve got to nurture and mind that spirit. Mind your energy.”
Then – and only then – can you begin to mind other people, and to manage them.
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