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Eyes everywhere: Leaders under scrutiny

by Phil Whichello

The pressure of scrutiny can either improve executive performance – or have a deeply detrimental effect. Here Phil Whichello outlines why, and what can be done to maximize its benefits.

Growing levels of scrutiny on leaders – both from outside their organisations and within – have made leadership more challenging than ever. There is much to navigate, from the demands of external regulators, media and shareholders to internal pressure to deliver stretching goals safely, legally and ethically and the psychological challenge of living up to their own often unrealistic expectations.

One consequence of this is a worrying new trend we’re seeing in the leadership teams of some of our largest clients: some leaders have simply stopped wanting to move upwards to the top flights because of the increased risks and stress they think the move will entail. In some cases, this is leading to serious shortages of talent in the pipeline.

Many organisations have identified certain employee behaviours as essential for success. These might typically include the need to be accountable, to be resilient, to collaborate and to inspire others. Yet when leaders feel under heavy scrutiny, the very opposite behaviours can manifest themselves.

Drawing together well-established recent research from psychology, sociology and neuroscience, we have developed a framework that shows the importance of the relationship between an organisation’s culture and its leaders’ psychology to explain why people behave how they do when under scrutiny, and what can be done to foster more positive responses.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

Much of our response to scrutiny comes from our interpretation of it and, indeed, the reaction it evokes from within us. What does it feel like to be visible? To be evaluated? To be held accountable? Does being held under the spotlight of scrutiny always result in the experience of ‘threat’, or could it be experienced as an opportunity to thrive and to ‘show up’? As is so often the case, much of our reaction to the gaze of others is influenced by our early experiences, our sense of self and who we are. It links to our core beliefs about how we think we are seen in the minds of others and how much value we place on others’ opinion of us.

Fundamentally, it also links to how our brains are wired. The psychologist Paul Gilbert draws a distinction between what he describes, in simplified terms, as our ‘old’ and ‘new’ brains. The former describes structures developed millions of years ago which human beings share with many other animals. Our ‘old brains’ give rise to basic feelings and motives, such as fear and anger, which help us to respond to our environment and stay out of harm’s way.

Later in our evolutionary journey we developed the capacity to think beyond our immediate surroundings: to remember into the past and imagine into the future. Our ‘new brains’ gave us the capacity to be self-aware. But although this evolutionary step gave us the ability to solve complex problems and achieve all we have achieved as a human race, it comes with a downside. We don’t need an external threat to feel continually ‘under threat’. We can do this all by ourselves. We can ruminate on and beat ourselves up over past mistakes. We can worry about the future and imagine all sorts of negative scenarios that may never come to be. We can continually compare ourselves to others and worry about what people think. The problem for us comes in the relationship between our old and new brains; they can get stuck in a loop, each feeding off the other. Our emotions drive our thinking, and our thinking drives our emotions. The trick is to notice that this loop is happening, and find a way out.

Furthermore, and crucially for performance, responding in ‘threat mode’ fundamentally changes how we behave. Research suggests that when the ‘old’ brain’s self-preservation instincts dominate in extremis, there is less capacity for behaviours associated with ownership, making amends responsibly, and engaging others with humanity. Our mindset is often one of competition rather than collaboration; our focus is simply to survive. There is also evidence that risk aversion increases under conditions of sustained stress, leading to behaviours associated with hunkering down and the avoidance of decision-making. Conversely, when we feel safe, we are more inclined to explore, be creative and collaborate. We become willing to be seen and be counted. Developing this inner resource starts to enable us to experience scrutiny as an opportunity. In the words of Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, we are able to cultivate a “growth mindset’.

A crucial relationship

Let us not forget, though, that as individuals we do not operate in a vacuum; the conditions in which we work contribute to how we behave. Therefore, the relationship between
an individual and the workplace culture is central to shaping how people respond under scrutiny.

When the workplace is full of blame, criticism and bullying, colleagues become overly focused on avoiding failure rather than striving for success. Conversely, when individuals work in a nurturing environment where they feel psychologically safe, they are able to deal with periods of sustained stress with openness. If they make a mistake, they are taught how to ‘put it right’ constructively, allowing a sense of autonomy and competence to develop.

Over the short term, the experience of being in either of these two environments may be the same. When there is a ‘crisis’, everyone’s response is to deal with it in a focused and concentrated way. Performance often rises. Yet, over time, repeated behaviours become fixed patterns; a crisis becomes another ‘fire drill’ and the pressure to raise performance continuously becomes overwhelming. Paradoxically, when people feel under constant scrutiny to achieve stretching targets under demanding conditions, they become less likely to meet what is being asked of them – unless deliberate attention is paid to how things are done, as the following graphic illustrates.


At the heart of this dynamic interaction, between an individual’s ‘fight or flight’ response to scrutiny and a critical or nurturing work environment, is leadership. How leaders choose to act, over time, has a direct influence on how others respond and will shape how individuals behave. In other words, someone who might normally be open and collaborative in times of difficulty may become closed and individualistic in their behaviour because of what they experience in a particular environment.

The question leaders need to ask themselves from moment to moment is: Is my leadership behaviour increasing stress in people around me, or supporting their growth? And to what extent is it helping me to be the leader I want to be?

What can be done?

Ultimately, as researcher Amy Edmundson argues, if leaders are to respond positively to scrutiny, and to very real external threats, they need to feel safe psychologically. In our view, there is real scope for companies to do more in terms of supporting these individuals develop the personal resources they need to tackle the challenges.

Workshops and coaching can help leaders recognise and understand their reactions to scrutiny, and build resilience to it. The aim is to support behaviours that encourage growth in themselves and others, such as compassion, genuine collaboration, showing and being comfortable with vulnerability, and other indicators of humanity. Although these might seem like ‘soft’ attributes in the competitive world of commerce, they are actually the source of enormous strength.

Working at an individual level alone isn’t enough, however. The organisational system also needs to support individuals to respond in the ‘right’ way. That involves working with the culture to assess which leadership behaviours are valued and how leadership is rewarded.

The final point to stress is the importance of any leader’s relationship with colleagues. If the aim is to create a psychologically ‘safe’ environment, freeing employees to cope with the pressures of scrutiny, they need to invest time and emotional energy in developing high quality relationships with the individuals around them. Leaders who want to build a culture of respect, patience and empathy must first role model it.

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