The human brain is truly a wonder. Well respected neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, notes: “A piece of your brain the size of a grain of sand would contain one hundred thousand neurons, two million axons, and one billion synapses, all ‘talking’ to each other.” Although we are beginning to develop a basic understanding of how the brain works, we still do not fully understand the concept of perception: the process of attaining awareness or understanding through sensory input.
Ramachandran is perhaps best known for his book Phantoms in the Brain. The title refers to his work with those who have experienced amputation or paralysis. Despite these injuries, these victims often retain all or part of the normal sensations of a missing or paralyzed limb—pain, itching, etc. Ramachandran explains that this is because the brain has a “body image,” a representation of itself that includes the missing limb (arm, legs, digits, etc.). While some suggest that this perception is because the person experiences some denial that the limb is lost, he also notes that some born without limbs (keep in mind that they never have known life with these limbs) still experience the vivid sensation of having the use of the limb. He addresses one case where one young girl, born without arms, frequently used her “fingers” to do simple math calculations. This seems to suggest that a brain is hardwired for limb coordination. Even when an amputation may occur, it takes time for the brain to catch up to the fact that the limb is no longer present. An inaccurate perception.
The work of Ramachandran and other neuroscientists seems to prove Freud’s theory that our brain develops defense mechanisms—perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors whose purpose is to look for (and even invent) “evidence” that supports our self-perceptions. We will do all we can to preserve that perceived sense of self and who we think we are.
We find clear evidence to support the fact that those leaders whose perceptions of their own performance and behaviors most closely match others’ perceptions of their performance tend to be the most effective leaders. This is supported by numerous studies on performance and emotional intelligence. Self-awareness tends to be a key component of this.
Phantom Leadership Coaching
One of the roles of a leadership coach, then, comes in helping an individual more closely align self-perception with reality. We have found that as many as 78% of all 360-degree feedback participants will score themselves significantly different than others rate them. Most coaches understand these gaps in perception may be both a cause and a result of performance issues. However, natural defense mechanisms work diligently to preserve a “sense of self,” which means that natural instinct may be to reject any information that opposes that sense of identity (think phantom limbs).
This is where many coaches fail. Coaches often neglect the piece of the coaching equation that recognizes that the natural tendency of most individuals is to preserve a sense of self. Rather than recognizing this, many coaches attempt to invoke logic as a way to combat this gap in perception, assuming that simply presenting evidence (360-degree feedback, performance evaluations, behavioral examples, etc.) of an individual’s under-performance will cause them to accept reality and move forward. However, similar to the brain’s inability to adapt to the idea of a phantom limb, accepting a contrasting view of one’s performance may be daunting. A coach must understand that an approach that preserves a degree of sense of self, while simultaneously pointing out performance gaps, is far more likely to generate change than simply and logically identifying gaps between perception and reality. The common “By the way, your arm is missing,” approach generally used today by most coaches does little to help an individual confront reality and make lasting change.
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