If you want to build a team or product that changes the world, you have to understand your many minds.
Do you ever get the sensation you want to eat a whole pizza yourself while another totally different part of yourself says, “You should probably get a salad, fat ass”? It makes me wonder, am I truly one singular person, or are we many people in one body? Neurologists are finding we have many different agents inside of us, not just one, each with a totally different set of ideas, feelings and a history. If you want to create anything, including a billion dollar company, you’ve got to handle this kind of thing first at your individual conscious level. Then after that, you can do it for your team. That’s what it takes to make a team that changes the world.
Act 1: My Failure As A Manager (I Am Of Many Minds)
In April of last year, I did a 360-degree review with my team. My executive coach sat down with the people I work closely with and got feedback about me from them one-on-one. Then she anonymized it and pulled out what I needed to do to get better. This time, I got a big awakening to something I wasn’t totally aware of. One of my team members said, “Garry relies on other people to say no for him. He feels things but does not articulate them until later. People can’t immediately understand what he thinks or feels about a situation.”
If you’re a manager, you know this is a red flag. I wasn’t doing my job. I wasn’t being clear when I needed to be. You need to know this is merely scratching the surface of what’s actually going on here.
To understand organizations and our job as leaders, we need to understand our brains, our teams and how our social consciousness is woven together.
How did I get to this point? I find that I’m often debating both sides of a thing. On the one hand, I do have my own viewpoint informed by my experience. Whether it’s a go-no-go decision about a product or how much to pay for something, I’m always going to have my own opinion. On the other hand, I end up having very detailed mental models of what other people want — whether it’s my customer, my user, my investor or even my coworkers — they have totally different motivations, wants and needs.
One of the things that allows me to do a good job as a designer, VC or manager is to be able to construct models of behavior of other people based on their experience, not just mine. These two sides play out within me like an argument. It might be me and several different perspectives from different co-workers at play, all arguing it out in front of me within my brain at the same time. Inside of me, I’m debating with the constructed models of what other people want. When I don’t properly resolve that back and forth, I don’t, as a leader, make a good decision, and I might end up relying on others to interpret the tea leaves and say “yes” or “no” for me. Fundamentally, that means I am not integrated enough.
Act 2: There Are Many Minds Inside Of Us (The Individual)
Here’s what I realized: there are many minds within me. Through therapy and executive coaching, I now know this about myself. It’s easy to lose myself in other people’s perspective. Because their wants and needs are so vivid to me, I’ve sometimes lost my own perspective. Neuroscientists have been talking about exactly that. What you and I experience as a unitary experience of consciousness might not actually be.
Here’s one of my favorite clips from Adam Curtis’s new documentary “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”
What Michael Gazzaniga, the psychology professor featured in the documentary, proposes is that many minds decide and our verbal centers rationalize. There is no united self but many of them, and all of us human beings live in a made-up dream of stories that give the illusion that we have control when really there’s something else inside of us that we might never ever be in contact with. The psychological self might actually be multiple selves. They have emotions, incentives and destinies. They can control the motor apparatus — our bodies and what we say and what we do. Then there’s a verbal part trying to rationalize this after the fact.
Act 3: There Are Many Minds Outside Of Us Too (The Organization)
Robert Kegan, Harvard researcher, says there are five stages of development, of which the latter four are progressively attained in adulthood. However, only a small number of adults actually reach the fourth stage and beyond.
- Stage 1: Impulse or reflex driven. It’s infancy and early childhood.
- Stage 2: The sense of self is ruled by needs and wishes. The needs and wishes of others in that stage are only relevant to the extent that they support those of the person. Effectively, that person lives in two separate worlds in that way, and this is how most children and adolescents live.
- Stage 3: The sense of self is socially determined. This is based on the real or imagined expectations of others, and this is our twenties.
- Stage 4: The sense of self is determined by a set of values that they have authored for themselves. It’s rarely achieved and only in adulthood.
- Stage 5: The sense of self is no longer bound to any aspect of themselves or their history. They’re free to allow themselves to focus on the flow of their lives.
Those stages are powerful and important to know because they give us a specific cosmology for how we should strive to live our lives.
Act 4: Integrate Yourself To Author Your Own Life
Now that we know Kegan’s ladder, I realized that I’ve been climbing this ladder all along. As a child, we are impulse driven. As an adolescent, we’re ruled by our own needs and wishes. As a young adult, our sense of self is defined by our social standing — who am I in relationship to my group, my tribe, my school, my friends, my family and my workplace? To progress beyond stage three, we must ask, “Can I transcend my own bodily needs? Can I transcend my desire for money, sex, fame or material goods?”
Let’s get back to the feedback I got from my team. “Garry relies on other people to say no for him. He feels things but does not articulate them until later. People can’t immediately understand what he thinks or feels about a situation.”
When in this state, I’m of many minds, some my own and some made of constructed models of the people around me. I was stuck in stage three, a socially constructed self. I was conflict-avoidant, and I could not say no or even express a preference. I was lucky, though. Because deep down, I knew that I was going to have problems with this — I always have — and here’s where hiring well helped. I’d built a team and set up values that they could work towards, even if, in the moment, I couldn’t express that preference myself. I’m super thankful for this team because it was the strength of that team that got me through a very hard time, but relying on the team to say things that I needed to say myself… that’s always going to be worse than doing it yourself. These days, through coaching and therapy, I’m now aware of when these conflicts are actually occurring inside of me.
I discovered that I can actually notice when these conflicts are happening, and if I can notice, then I can inflect into the conflict. I notice this through my physiological response. I can feel my breath and my heart rate go faster. I can feel my face get hot. Those are the moments where I need to pause and take stock of the many minds.
If I can give a voice to the different parts of me, then I can also notice what I truly want, and then I can express a preference, when before I would have been unable to. Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, talks a lot about mediation as a key force for why he was successful. He says, “It helps to slow things down so I can act calmly, even in the face of chaos, just like a ninja in a street fight.”
Chaos is going to be a given. Conflict is a part of life, but if you can notice your many selves and break apart what you truly want versus your modeling of others, then you can reach Kegan’s stage four, a life that is truly authored by you.
If you are wondering what happened, I did a 360-degree review with my team this year. I’m happy to report I’ve been able to solve my problem of asking others to fight my battles for me. They’re happy and so am I.
As they say, knowing is half the battle. If you can be integrated and aware at your individual conscious level, then you can integrate your team into a powerful, resolute super organism that can build incredible products and services — that’s what it takes to make something bigger than any of ourselves. When leaders do this, we are greater than the sum of our parts.
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