I am, you are, we are two-faced

CEOH - Centre of Expertise in Organizational Health - Lausanne - Switzerland - I am we are double

It happened near you…

He is intelligent, competent and experienced. His sensibility infused by Mediterranean culture enables him to connect with everyone, to inspire confidence also. The combination of the two gives him charisma, a natural leadership. He is successful, the CEO of a large, thriving multinational company.

He has, however, just been fired. Little by little, with his departure, we start to discover his dysfunctioning.

He does not know that he is double-faced.

In light of what he has learned to master, he gives the best of himself. He feels and knows that he is competent, that he is driven by a capacity for analysis, resolution or decision. That he is the pilot of his world, striving to do good.

More chaotic situations carry him away, however, on a strong wave towards grounds without real bottom. And then an invisible shift occurs; his fluent abilities stiffen. He becomes controlling. He loses his ability to imagine and create new possibilities.
He does not know that, deep down, his sense of security depends on visible successes and their external recognition. Now that the economic context has shifted from strong growth to structural turbulence, his inner balance is threatened and refuses to accept any form of failure.
His power of analysis, resolution and decision have become dictators that demand success and that punish any perceived drift. Dictators that demand a return to the secure world of mastery and success, right at the moment they are invited to venture beyond, to expand and enlarge.
He knows even less that his team is also double-faced.
When confronted with trust and openness, the team is competent, creative, flexible, proactive.
But under uncertainty and fear – a market that has become challenging and a leader who unconsciously imposes his shadowy side – their strengths fall away and they try to shield themselves. Some take the risk of rebelling. Many submit to preserve themselves. Little by little, difficulties are no longer recognized, solutions are no longer sought and discussed. The team closes in on itself, lets itself be sucked in by this wave of uncertainty.

This is normal, because all this is human.

This successful manager is two-faced, as is any hardworking factory worker, overstretched introvert, bully or a teddy bear, team, organization. Our human nature makes each of us double, each relationship double, each team double, each organization double.

In us there’s always light and shadow, and we switch surreptitiously from one to the other depending on what we feel about what is happening.

Why is this so? Because the main mission of our brain is to ensure our survival.

When everything is going well, it puts itself in exploration and development mode to promote our adaptation and evolution.

When threats arise, however, our brain automatically switches to defence mode: it bypasses the higher cognitive functions – by nature slow, energy-consuming and undecisive – to fall back on the reptilian reflexes of fight, flight and freeze. In other words, it no longer thinks because it is too busy protecting itself.

This is a miracle of nature. It has allowed Homo Habilis to survive the more than two million years that have brought us here.

Unfortunately, the mechanism sometimes jams. Especially so when sudden challenging experiences are interpreted as a threat. By going into defence mode, it short-circuits the cognitive capacities that would allow us to overcome difficulties. And by repeatedly doing so, it conditions us to keep on failing, reinforcing our limiting beliefs.

But all this can be changed; we can choose to change it.

Our brain is malleable. We can rewrite our own scripts in order to influence the mechanism that takes us into our light or into our shadow – individually and collectively.

The process is simple, but it requires the development of self-awareness and self-management.

It is a matter of becoming aware of the mental mode in which we find ourselves – directly or through the feedback we receive. Of identifying the cause of our stress and the belief that is at the root of our fear. This belief we can then substitute for a new, more adequate belief, and then train new behaviour that is better suited. In this way, the brain can experience the stressful situation while associating a more positive behaviour, so that we don’t fall back into the stress state again.

Changing our way of thinking modifies our neural circuits. The more we practice, the more fluid the mechanism becomes. We can also choose mindfulness practices to train our brain to choose resilience and homeostasis.

What about you, as a person, as a team, as an organization?

Who are you when things are calm? Who do you become under stress? What kinds of contexts or situations cause you to shift from one to the other? How do you become aware and manage?

What to remember concerning organizational health?

The health of an organization and its ability to reinvent itself require the mobilization of its intelligence and its capacity to adapt. However, in a stressful situation, the human brain short-circuits these qualities in order to fall back on protective reflexes of aggression, escape or immobility.

We have the opportunity – and with it the responsibility – to learn how to help ourselves maintain or re-establish the state of creative calm necessary for the optimal use of our cognitive and social faculties. This learning goes through self-awareness and then through the management of our emotions and beliefs, individually and collectively.

Some resources for those who want to know more:

– The concept of “above the line and below the line”, attributed to Jan Terkelsen
– The concept of “psychological safety”, created by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson
Hardwiring happiness, Rick Hanson
L’intelligence du stress, Jacques Fradin (in French)