3 Psychological Barriers to Leadership Buy-in

One battle those in the enterprise social space continue to fight is the battle for leadership buy-in. I was reminded of this by two articles I read recently, one by Andrew Gerkens in his recent “The real reasons senior leaders won’t use your ESN” and the other by Rich Millington of Feverbee who wrote in his news letter about Customer Communities that “It’s a lot easier to have 1000 engaged community members than 1 senior, supportive, stakeholder in the community.

So damn, we still have a lot of work to do or is it we are working at the wrong things?

The problem always seems to lay in the practice of leading with technology and not psychology, meaning we know more about the solutions and not enough about the people. It’s hard not to, when at the end of the day it is a tool set or platform where the action will happen. We often think that our leaders don’t get it, fear losing control or are just plain soulless. Even if some combination of these things are true, then you can whine or keep beating them over the head with your speak to business results approach. But like any problem to solution process, you need to first figure out why and also why you’re not able to make inroads – it may be deeper than you think!

There are 3 psychological influences you must consider when engaging your leadership in what is essentially change management; Learned Helplessness, Cognitive Dissonance and for you, The Cassandra Effect.

Learned Helplessness can be best understood as “a phenomenon in which individuals gradually, usually as a result of repeated failure or control by others, become less willing to attempt tasks.” (D.D. Smith, 2001)

People who stay in domestic violent situations and children with disabilities are often examples of learned helplessness. But this control doesn’t have to come from an individual, it can come from institutions. Years of schooling create a monopoly of the mind regarding how people learn. Leaders, with 20+ years of schooling, often can’t see social learning via social networking tools as “real” learning because they themselves “learned” that real learning requires a teacher, desks, and a curriculum. The repeated control of schooling makes many less likely to try social learning solutions let alone see social interaction as an influence on learning.

Cognitive Dissonance is another. Cognitive Dissonance is when you experience painful confusion about who you are and it only gets resolved by seeing the world in a more satisfying way. As Social Psychologist Leon Festinger said, “you make your view of the world fit with how you feel or what you’ve done.”

In the context of organizational social, when we approach leaders about using social technology instead of traditional ways of sharing/transmitting knowledge (even though you have the data and the stories and the support), you are telling that leader that what they’ve already invested in (L&D), committed to, and most importantly believe to be true and right is actually wrong. Simply, when you’re trying to get a leader to change his/her direction you may actually be attacking their very own self perception!

These two conditions actually introduce us to the third. And this one’s on you now, not your leadership. Ignoring the impact of Learned Helplessness and it’s close relative, Cognitive Dissonance, puts you firmly into the Cassandra Effect. The Cassandra Effect is the condition of speaking the truth and having no one believe you. Even armed with all the facts, you are dismissed and/or ignored. Think about all those scientists sharing research on Climate Change is a perfect example and here’s why:

  • The scientific evidence is overwhelming! Yet the average person just sees periodic storms and fires that we’ve always had.
  • Scientists are really smart and went to smart schools! Yet the average person thinks Scientists aren’t one of us. They don’t talk like us and seem elitist
  • Scientists want to stop all carbon emissions. Yet the average person is thinking “Whoa! I’m just getting this whole recycling thing
  • Scientists warn that the earth’s ecosystem will collapse in 50 years. Yet the average person thinks 50 may as well be 50,000 years. Plus, storms, fires, always had ’em

Therefore you’re up against more than justifying ROI with social learning efforts. You’re fighting some basic psychology. However, done right and Cognitive Dissonance can be battled with good data and Learned Helplessness can be overcome through incremental successes being amplified and internalized… but it all hinges on you’re personal ability to escape the Cassandra Effect. And here’s how that can be done!

  1. Your data and evidence better be obvious and relevant and paint a clear picture of now, not later some time to come (I’m talking to you Future of Work people!).
  2. You better be seen as an insider, someone who gets the business and has built trust. If you don’t have it, find someone who does and let them lead by proxy!
  3. Know the limits. Push too hard and fast and you’re pushing a leader out of her comfort zone. Know that zone well.
  4. Innovation? Creativity? Vague and distant is not important. Too far from a leader’s immediate needs and you miss the mark completely. Know the needs and tie things together.

If you want more on this take a look/listen to these two podcasts which inspired this post and confirmed some ideas I’ve had for a long time.

You Are Not So Smart: https://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/10/05/the-benjamin-franklin-effect/
Hidden Brain: https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=648781756

Are you considering these issues? If so, how are you going about it?