Marcus du Sautoy recently presented a fascinating edition of Horizon, looking at consciousness – when do human beings become self-aware, how can consciousness be measured, monitored, recorded and so on.  One of the classic tests for identifying its emergence – placing a toddler with a stick-on spot on its face in front of a mirror and seeing if it notices the spot and tries to remove it – shows that we typically achieve self-awareness somewhere between the ages of 18 and 24 months. So it’s just some of us who need another couple of decades then …

Consciousness is, of course, an abstract and rather nebulous notion: in attempting to chart it, prove its existence or understand its operations, scientists and philosophers of a variety of stripes have undertaken the kind of research that requires plenty of white coats as well as machines that go ‘ping’ and ‘beep’. Over the course of du Sautoy’s programme – even one pitched at the unscientific – that gave us plenty to learn.

Beyond the unexpected discovery that Oxford University Professors of Maths wear the same novelty socks as my next door neighbour, we also discovered – armed with only a mere MRI scanner – that we might think we’re making random decisions or choices, but analysis of our brain behaviour can predict our choices up to six seconds before we make them. At which point, I had a clear moment of consciousness and realised that over the years – armed merely with a biro and a swivel chair – I’d successfully predicted the responses of several managers to a whole host of ‘matters arising’. Far from being a uniquely clairvoyant savant, it turns out this isn’t some specialist skill I’ve developed: in reality, it’s probably more a case of having worked for some sadly typical bosses. Knee-jerk responses are thick in the ground in our working experiences (and the ‘knee’ plays very much the supporting role).

Modern life has a myriad of features familiar to most of us. Regulations about acceptable workplace behaviour are no exception – Codes of Conduct abound, and disciplinary procedures around the world list all manner of potentially career-threatening faux pas. But their existence must surely be knowingly ironic: ‘you can’t legislate against human nature’ is one of our species’ time-worn phrases. Or, as Adlai Stephenson said more pithily “Laws are never as effective as habits.”

We’ve always maintained that effective leadership is largely behavioural, and that it is furthermore predominantly habitual, automated and unconscious. As Confucius said:

Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.”

But even when we know better, many of us act on impulse rather than wisdom: neither cigarettes or trans fats are good for us, but we continue to indulge. But knowing better is the adult equivalent of du Sautoy’s toddler, picking at their new ‘beauty spot’ in the mirror: being familiar enough with ourselves and our relationship to the world to at least recognise a new blemish, if not actually removing it. We might have better natures, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to apply them. Or, as Jane Austen, put it:

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle.”

Crinolines and bustles can, of course, conceal multiple sins, infelicities and other unlady-like unmentionables. Offices and corporate life, by contrast, have long been a favourite setting for blackly-humorous situation comedies for good reason: the place in our lives where we are most focused on achieving, meeting targets and living up to standards is also a place where our foibles show through – the behavioural equivalent of a hairy leg in a fine stocking. The follies of bosses are a particularly rich vein, not least because most of us can readily recognise the characters from our own lives. If you are a Reginald Perrin fan, you’ll already realise that CJ didn’t get where he was by being a work of complete tragi-comedic fiction.

The tragedy for CJ, as for a lot of real people, is that he is blissfully unaware of his failings. Others, with equally lamentable ways of behaving, can see his shortcomings clearly – but are just as blind as him to their own. As Mark Twain put it:

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”

A scan of just the recent workplace surveys reveals how commonplace this rum state of affairs is. This week, Training Journal ran a news item – Bad untrained managers giving workers no choice but to quit – that highlighted recent Chartered Management Institute (CMI) research showing that 50% of respondents had resigned from jobs simply to get away from bad bosses. The article also notes that 40% of bosses reported that they had no management training, and only 25% held any type of formal management qualification.

The article includes a quote from Ruth Spellman, CMI’s Chief Executive, where she says:

It’s telling that the majority of individuals never set out to manage people, and have not been trained to do so.”

In much the way that some people have the embarrassing habit of shouting at the television, my barely-suppressed preference was to shout at the computer screen. Not just because – to paraphrase Peter Drucker (another widespread habit in itself) – you lead people and manage tasks. And not just that ‘training’ isn’t the same as learning: the majority of people may not have reached it, however we refer to it, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of reflection or of recognising the errors of their ways. It may have been Agatha Christie who observed:

Curious things, habits. People themselves never knew they had them.”

– but she was a novelist, not a detective: perhaps her life as an archaeologist’s wife lent her the habit of uncovering things we have previously buried?

What had me foaming at the mouth was another piece of recent research, published in the Psychological Journal, and undertaken by Nathanael Fast (University of Southern California in Los Angeles) and Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley). In the way that we humans like to spread bad news – and enjoy having our suspicions confirmed – it’s getting a lot of coverage: The Workplace Bullying Institute, Newsweek, the Neuronarrative blog, New Scientist and The Guardian were just five who spotted something that’s not just a big human interest story but importantly also a big business story too. Basically, the higher we rise in our careers, the more vulnerable we can feel and the less competent we may feel ourselves to be in our role. And the higher we rise, the more likely we are to be aggressive as a result. Or as David DiSalvo put at Neuronarrative:

It’s no surprise that power and aggression often move along the same track. In particular, the threat of losing power is like striking a match near the aggression gun powder keg.  Studies have shown that the perceived need to protect one’s power kicks ego defenses into high gear, loaded with enough aggression to regret for a lifetime.”

Codes of Conduct notwithstanding, 37% of working Americans reported that they had been ‘bullied’ at work in the past 12 months. Workplace Bullying Institute explains the combination of authority and inadequacy that can prove so toxic:

Bullies present themselves as omnipotent and powerful to dissuade confrontation and to keep from being revealed as something different. Targets intuitively sense that bullying is compensatory behavior, attempts to cover wrongdoing with bluster and bravado. It’s like the Wizard of Oz in the palace who is exposed by Toto, the dog, when he pulled back the curtain showing the small man pretending to be bigger than he was. It’s nearly impossible to call a bully insecure or cursed with a sense of self-inadequacy because of the power they often enjoy in the workplace. However, the intuition of bullied targets and witnessing co-workers is spot on. Bullies are small people.”

Yahoo’s Personal Finance articles series provides the targets with a few crumbs of advice in an article called 10 Ways to Make Your Boss Love You, but stroking the ego of a bully is not the way to solve the problem. The answer is to find a way of making the bully realise that they have an issue they need to face, help them find the self-awareness to recognise the issue’s importance, teach or coach them alternative behaviours and then support them as they try to make them into new habits. Stroking the former bully’s ego is one small part of the final stage, but – like the 3 hour event that introduces them to alternative approaches – it’s not the whole answer.)

Because changing behaviour is harder than learning a new skill or mastering a new technique, we resist it and we live in denial as long as possible. We put up with the inappropriate ways of others for a quiet life as long as we can – and then seek an alternative quiet life rather than improving the old one. Rather than tackling the issue for everyone’s benefit, we bide our time, and follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice when it comes to assessing our superiors:

Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”

We have another unfortunate habit too – thinking that behaving in this way is called realism. Here’s another definition, courtesy of Jean Cocteau:

True realism consists in revealing the surprising things which habit keeps covered and prevents us from seeing.”

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