Recently a family member recalled a saying our grandmother often shared: “What you believe about people is how you’ll treat them.” Having raised eight children and watched many grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow, this message from my grandmother served as a gentle warning for what we may experience and what we may perpetuate. Certainly I have experienced feeling mistreated or ignored by others based on what they likely believed about me. And I know that I have treated others in not the nicest ways based on what I believed about them.
This principle occurs often in the workplace and is the basis of Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference model. Argyris found that we all use our filters to (often unconsciously) select what we notice about a person, add meaning to what we observe, and then make assumptions and draw conclusions that become set beliefs. As my grandmother pointed out, it is those very beliefs that then determine how we treat that person. I asked a group of high-achieving young managers what beliefs they have about people who leave the office at 5 and I heard responses like – “they’re not hard workers,” “they’re not ambitious,” “they’re slackers,” “they’re not committed to the organization.” Now there are legitimate reasons why someone may leave the office at 5, and those reasons may not be common knowledge. But, based on these managers’ responses, how might someone who is seen as an uncommitted slacker be treated? And how might they react in return? Will they be able to perform at their best?
It works in reverse as well. If you believe that one of your employees is a superstar, you will treat them like a superstar – assigning plum projects, sharing information that you may not share with others, giving greater autonomy, and developing a great rapport with his or her. But what if those beliefs, whether positive or negative, are not grounded in reality? What if our ingrained beliefs about someone are getting in the way of managing and leading effectively?
By practicing Thoughtful Leadership™ and “climbing down the Ladder of Inference” to question your assumptions about others, notice things that challenge your notion of who that person is, and take the time to engage in honest dialogue, you can ensure that your beliefs are not getting in the way of being the best leader you can be.
And taking my grandmother’s saying a step further, it is also true that “what you believe about yourself is how others will treat you.” Just as our beliefs about others influence our behavior, our beliefs about ourselves have the same effect. A coaching client recently shared that she was not confident in her ability to interact with people. “I’m not good with people, not a people person,” she said. This belief about herself caused her to be tentative and unsure around others, which in turn made it difficult for her to form important relationships at work. She acted out her own beliefs, wasn’t good with people, and then others treated her like a “non-people person” in return.
Our beliefs can indeed impact our actions and create an unintended reality for ourselves and the people we work with. As a leader, being aware of our beliefs and being flexible and open enough to shift our beliefs when necessary is a skill that pays off in many ways.
If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.
To explore how your beliefs may be impacting your growth as a leader and getting in the way of developing members of your team, contact Robyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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