Subconscious Archive

Meanness as competent and smart

Our crude instincts often cause us to misinterpret hypercriticism as competence and smartness.

For thousands of years, humans have struggled against their crudest instincts. They influence us daily. They require work to overcome. Whether it’s courage over fear, coexistence over destruction, love over reproduction, or faith over hopelessness; the first in each pair requires work to overcome the second. These same crude instincts cause us to misinterpret meanness as competent and smart. They encourage the misevaluation of talent.

The desire for security is a powerful emotional trigger in all humans. Long ago, we craved leaders whose meanness and insensitivity didn’t permit squeamishness to interfere in eradicating our enemies. That was our crudest definition of competency.

Despite our advancement, civilization and legalism, this crudeness has not left us. “A Sad Fact of Life: It’s Actually Smart to Be Mean Online” (Wired, November 2014 edition) by Clive Thompson and the research, Downplaying Positive Impressions: Compensation Between Warmth and Competence in Impression Management, by Deborah Holoien (The Ohio State University) and Susan Fiske (Princeton University) find that we tend to see meanness as competent and smart. They technically define meanness as hypercriticism.

Moreover, as noted by the research Thompson cites, Wanting to Appear Smart: Hypercriticism as an Indirect Impression Management Strategy (Bryan Gibson, Central Michigan University), applicants and employees can trigger these in us as an active part of an indirect impression management strategy (more). Indirect means subconscious here.

Holoien and Fiske also found that a tradeoff exists. Not only do we see meanness as competent and smart, but we also see warmth as less competent and smart. In other words, we find it very difficult to see someone as both warm and compassionate, and competent and smart. Emotionally, a tradeoff exists for us. Thus, the mean get hired and promoted over the warm.

Returning to our roots, business seems to tap our crudest instincts. The survivability of our enterprises is on par with our prehistoric struggles for life. No doubt, we have experienced tremendous civil, legal and technological advancements. Emotionally though, we have not advanced to where we are comfortable putting the fate of the enterprise in the hands of the warm and compassionate . . . no matter how competent and smart they are.


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Customers Are #2

By Mike Lehr
The influence of this statement extends deeply into an organization.

The influence of this statement extends deeply into an organization.

Eighty percent of companies seem to emphasize the classic, “Customers are #1,” mantra. Far fewer emphasize an employee-centric one, “Employees are #1.” With the latter, the rationale is usually “Treating employees well encourages them to treat customers well.” It’s much deeper than that though.

Centier Bank in Indiana is an example. In Indiana Bankers Association’s publication, Hoosier Banker (Hoosier is Indiana’s demonym), Mike Schrage, the bank’s chairman, chief executive officer and president, explains the rationale:

We also put our associates first, before our customers and our shareholders. The reason is that if we are treating our employees really well, they are going to treat our customers really well (see “Mike Schrage: Leading Centier Into the Next Generation” pg. 9 [pdf])

Intriguingly, reinforcing this as Centier is “Indiana’s largest, private, family-owned bank,” employees sign a “Declaration of Independence,” acknowledging to do what they can to preserve that independence. Additionally, Centier offers an in-house clinic, with free health screenings, treatments and generic prescriptions, and conducts annual fund-raisers for employees experiencing difficulties.

Below this pragmatism though, “Employees are #1” triggers emotions of long-term security and emotional recognition. Employees know Centier won’t sacrifice their jobs, integrity and efforts for customers. Under “Customers are #1,” all are potential fodder for that cause, expendable. They also know Centier values their unique skills, talents and “servant-oriented” personalities for which they actively recruit.

A colleague once countered, “Mike, employees don’t think that.” He’s wrong. They do on an intuitive and subconscious level. The first generates undefinable uneasy emotions, the second unattributable or misattributed ones. Feeling anxious about their jobs or about protecting themselves from blame are typical symptoms.

What we say and how influence motivation and thus outcomes. If the emotional aspects of messages are important in marketing, why aren’t they too with our internal markets?


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This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Three Key Emotional Triggers

Manifestation of NeedsOver fifteen years ago, a psychologist shared with me three key emotional triggers in humans: long-term security, novelty of experience and emotional recognition. Since then, I’ve distilled them into single words:

  • Security
  • Growth
  • Uniqueness

I refer to them as triggers because they are used frequently in marketing, advertising and sales to encourage us to buy. For example, consider consumer vehicles. Trucks’ advertisements will usually emphasize toughness, power and strength, aspects of security. Those of sports cars will emphasize excitement, speed and youth, aspects of growth. Luxury cars usually emphasize exclusivity, success and specialness, aspects of uniqueness. Certain triggers even dominate certain industries. Try to identify which triggers are working in the next commercials you watch.

Recognizing these triggers has two important implications for us. First, it protects us from those who wish to influence us without our knowledge. Second, it helps us assess and adapt to different personalities. By looking up these three words in a Roget’s Thesaurus, we can learn their related words. When we hear these words in commercials, we can then identify the triggers at work. In conversations, they will correlate to specific personalities.

I call these triggers because they can impact our emotions powerfully. Free will is a popular but outdated concept formalized in the 1500 and 1600’s. Belief in it encourages us to discount their power leaving us vulnerable to them. It was not developed with unconscious influences in mind. Even now, as some read this, they will not believe these triggers influence them. That is exactly why they work and are useful in assessing personalities.

With this in mind, what car commercials do you like, your friends? The triggers they use to attract will tell us something about ourselves and friends.


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This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Feelings, Emotions, Intuition - Difference

BreadAs a follow up to my previous examples, the complexities in throwing a party make it an excellent example to highlight the differences between emotions and intuition.

So, one day, you wake up and say, “Throwing a party would be fun.” This is your intuition speaking. Now, using the meal analogy, if intuition is the party, many emotions around it will move us in different directions, including those saying it’s a bad idea because of the effort. For instance, each person you invite triggers a different emotion. Emotions will be driving you to invite those you enjoy, those to whom you are obligated, those you dislike but like their partner.

That’s just the people! Now, consider the location, food, time, activities and so on. All come with emotions driving you in different directions. As with people, you might have to supply food you don’t like. In cases with many conflicting emotions, you might just guess, another example of intuition giving you direction.

Let’s talk about where feelings fit in; it will help position emotions and intuition in this example. Well, for each person, you have different feelings about their behavior, personality, appearance, mannerisms, relationships, friends, family, etc. All combine producing the emotion that encourages you to invite them, or not invite them. Thus, the party decision is the direction intuition provides for all the different emotions, conscious and unconscious, that are vying to move us.

Now, to tie it together, since intuition often works subconsciously, all that I described above is occurring before it reaches consciousness. Our intuition is sorting through all the emotions we have about people, food, activities and so on, and concluding a party would be “fun.”

Well, regardless of how you believe the decision came to be, please enjoy your next party. That’s what matters.




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Leadership Creates Heard Mentality in Many

Popularity influences our decisions to the point that we often subjugate our desires to what is popular. It’s a form of peer pressure in which we resolve the cognitive dissonance by liking what others like.

While this rational herding (more) as it’s known, can serve the purpose of helping the uninformed make decisions by following those who do, the article, “Bandwagon Behavior” [The Economist, July 20, 2013 edition], cites potential problems. As Kory Kroft (University of Toronto), Fabian Lange (McGill University) and Matthew Notowidigdo (The University of Chicago) showed, those who are unemployed for long periods are penalized more in the job market than those with short periods.

More importantly, as Matthew Salganik (Princeton University) and Duncan Watts (Microsoft Research) demonstrated that we can manipulate popularity to influence decisions. By creating fake popularity rankings of songs, they could get listeners to change which songs they liked best. Only the most popular song or two did not succumb to changes. In the real marketplace, businesses tap into this by influencing consumer leaders, those who establish what is popular. This links rational herding with our tendency to follow leaders despite the facts or our preferences. By establishing what is popular, leaders save our time and effort by making decisions for us.

Still, even without a leader, the article cites Abhijit Banerjee’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) work showing popularity trumps facts over time. In other words, while the first decision might not show popularity’s power, successive ones become increasingly likely to do so. Thus, people are more likely to do what’s popular than what’s right. Of course, since reality doesn’t care what’s popular, this increases the likelihood for problems. However, for those who see this, it creates positioning opportunities.

So, what popular decisions have you witnessed lately?


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Power of Rule Breakers

By Mike Lehr

Power of Rule BreakersThe stress between individuals and groups exhibits itself when individuals break the group’s rules. As Jeffrey Pfeffer writes in his article “Power, Capriciousness, and Consequences” (Harvard Business Review, April 2013 edition), people perceive rule breakers as powerful when they’re not caught. On the other hand, motivation declines, learning suffers and stress increases among the people who see rule breakers going unpunished, making rule breaking good for individuals and bad for groups.

Nevertheless, for centuries, as Pfeffer points out, “we observe that powerful people are able to ignore what’s expected and to do what they please.” Translating this to business, it’s not uncommon for business owners and leaders to establish rules for their organizations and not expect to follow them themselves. Moreover, employees don’t expect them to follow them.

Problematically though, failing to lead by example creates a culture more motivated by self-interest than by cooperation. Since employees cannot rely upon the cohesive elements of a business culture such as its rules, guidelines and norms, employees will turn inward and focus on their self-preservation, their self-interest.

Still, rule breaking creates power for the violators, a power potentially useful in pushing through company initiatives. Thus, as Pfeffer concludes, we have a paradox: enhancing leaders’ power at the expense of organizational cohesiveness.

It’s important though that we become aware of the subliminal influence rule breaking has on our perceptions of power. As we saw with psychopaths, rule breaking is a identifiable characteristic. Others might use rule breaking to influence our power assessments of them, creating a perception of power where little really exists. In this sense, rule breaking becomes a psychological weapon of leadership similar to the way confidence does.


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IncompetenceConfidence frequently indicates incompetence. However, leadership often requires confidence. Since people often fear uncertainty, they naturally gravitate to people who provide certainty, and confidence is a form of certainty. We can partially resolve this paradox by asking, “Is the person confident or merely being confident?” This question allows us to see confidence as a psychological weapon of leadership.

In school, we learn debate is rooted in arguments supported by evidence, an objective battle won by stronger facts and arguments. In real-life, we learn it’s more of an emotional contest. Political debates are excellent examples, but even our daily work environments contain examples.

Again, it’s more than good emotions battling bad emotions because people frequently don’t behave the way they claim they do. For instance, people say they value trust and honesty, but in reality, eloquence trumps both. In the end, conviction is often more potent than logic.

Confidence is a form of conviction about outcomes. Martyrs are examples of the power behind convictions. Someone willing to die for what something influences us immensely. Therefore, in many business debates, conviction around weak arguments and facts can easily overrun strong but hesitant, hedging ones. Moreover, since how we feel about the messenger influences how we interpret the message (more), people, especially leaders, can easily influence us if they have conviction and a good relationship with us . . . even when the facts contradict what they say. We sometimes experience this at work when we say someone has great will or will power.

We protect ourselves by being aware of the power confidence holds over us. Raising this to a conscious level is the key. This is true for many subliminal influences. So, next time you run into confidence, ask yourself “Are they using confidence as a smoke screen for incompetence?”


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One day long ago, I was working late for an employer when the President walked into the department and commented, “You’re working late!”

I replied, “Yes, my wife is out of town, so I figured I would catch up on a few things.”

“I wish more thought the same way,” he concluded and continued his rounds.

Employees have long known of “face time’s” value. Whereas staying late after school was considered bad, staying late after work isn’t even if it’s because we were disorganized and incompetent. However, today, with more companies moving to a mobile workforce environment and more employees working in remote offices or from home, “face time’s” impact on employees’ assessments is critical to consider, especially if employees are using Monday or Friday to work from home.

As reported in and MIT Sloan Management Review: “Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters”, Daniel Cable of the London Business School and Kimberly Elsbach of the UC Davis School of Management found:

. . . that managers’ inferences based on passive face time are unintentional — even unconscious. This supports research findings that people generally form trait inferences spontaneously, without realizing they are doing so.

Moreover, this just doesn’t affect managers:

. . .our research suggests that coworkers and subordinates may be just as prone to making unconscious trait judgments as managers are.

The real danger is that management – because these influences work subconsciously – will discount that influence. Knowing when we are under this influence is difficult. Yet, we can ward it off more easily if we are consciously aware of it and change our thoughts and behavior accordingly.

At the other end, employees will need to realize this influence is real and manage their careers differently. More emails, phone calls and reports to the boss won’t do it alone.


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When we think about the power of words, we often focus on the ideas they consciously express. However, their power extends unconsciously as anchoring tools and mood setters. In other words, they can alter how people think and feel without their knowledge. In fact, the words “think” and “feel” alone can influence whether we get a thinking answer or a feeling one from people.

Cassie Mogilner’s research cited in the article “You’ll Feel Less Rushed If You Give Time Away” (Harvard Business Review, September 2012 edition) finds:

. . . people who are exposed to money-related words . . . spend more time working and are less happy than those who are exposed to time-related words. The people primed to think about time socialize more with friends and family and are consequently happier.

The power behind this is similar to research in which people were primed for pursuing goals simply by reading things loaded with words like “success” and “achieve.” Unless people are consciously aware of this unconscious linkage, they won’t know they are being influenced and they won’t know that they are influencing others by using them.

In simple terms, the lesson is that if we wish to help others and ourselves, we should focus on the time-related aspects of events. When we manage people, focus them on the time they spent with others rather than how it affected budgets. For example, focus sales people on how their time helped clients rather than how much commission they made or how much they sold.

This is why political parties invest heavily in “staying on message” including the fine-tuning of which words to emphasize. Such conscious phrasing by a well-disciplined management team also influences a business culture, leveraging every aspect of power – conscious and unconscious – in words.


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This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Emotional Intelligence vs. Intuition

A major difference between Emotional Intelligence (EI) and intuition is the relationship of each to our conscious and unconscious selves. Whereas EI is primarily concerned with the former, it ignores the latter. Intuition, on the other hand, is very connected with our unconscious and influences our conscious.

Google searches illustrate this. When we insert “intuition and unconscious,” we immediately get a suggested search in the dropdown menu; we don’t with “emotional intelligence and unconscious.” In fact, when we go to search the original Goleman publication, “unconscious,” “subconscious” or “intuition” don’t appear.

Cognition, of which consciousness and intelligence play an important role, give form to our feelings and emotions. Thus, it’s one thing to be aware of something and another to express it as knowledge, proof or data.

Pragmatically, this means that those with high EI scores could have low intuitive functions and sensitivity because EI focuses on observable events not unconscious ones such as those routinely occurring in marketing, advertising and merchandising (more). It also means that people, who are very intuitive but cannot express it or translate it into action, will tend to have low EI scores.

For example, a sensitive person could get unconscious feelings about people from the words they use. Yet, the sensitive person would score low on EI if he could not express and attribute those feelings or translate them into specific actions that fit into the EI testing methodology.

Thus, EI exclusively focuses on what we consciously observe and communicate around emotions, in effect intellectualizing emotions, making knowledge of them intelligence. Intuition, on the other hand, often operates subconsciously. It means we can get feelings about people without knowing exactly how we got them. EI does not measure the degree to which this happens inside us.

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