Business psychologist and coach Janet Evans on becoming a better leader: understanding yourself, and your team members

“The mind is an elephant with a rider. The rider is conscious controlled thought. The elephant is everything else – gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, deeply held values, intuitions. Sometimes the rider and the elephant may be at odds. In these cases the superior power of the elephant will win.” (Jonathan Haidt – “The Happiness Hypothesis”)

We tend to think of ourselves as a rational species, and that workplaces are governed by conscious, rational thought. I find the elephant metaphor a really helpful way of reminding myself and my clients how wrong that is.

The really important things happen at unconscious level, and surface in our emotional reactions, and deeply held beliefs and assumptions. We all operate according to a set of mental and emotional models of the world, some of which are innate and the rest of which we have acquired from our upbringing and subsequent experience. We hold some of these at conscious level and can articulate them. But we may never have articulated the most important ones which are held at very deep levels indeed.

In my first blog, I said that the first step in becoming a better leader is to understand yourself better. But what does this mean?

When I’m coaching, I find it helpful to think of people in layers which become bigger and more important the deeper they are. Part of the role of the coaching process is to help people uncover and examine the models which make up these psychological strata, and reject or adjust those which are not helping them achieve what they want to.

– Layer 1 (the top layer) is your consciously-held knowledge, skills, interests, overt motivations, explicit values and assumptions about the world and your place in it;

– Layer 2 is personality. There is an enormous amount of research on personality and a number of simple but very useful models which can help you understand  and get the best from yourself and other people;

– Layer 3 is about values, assumptions and motivations which may be very important but are not explicit: these are often buried quite deep in the subconscious mind. Whether you know what your own are depends on whether you’ve thought about them – I spend a lot of time helping my coaching clients uncover what really matters to them, which is crucial if they are to make the right choices and spend their careers in a way which really fulfils them;

– Layer 4 is about deep processes. These are the emotional models of life and your place in it which you learned as a child, often before your conscious mind had developed. This is where people’s insecurities and limiting assumptions about themselves reside. They are not conscious and not  articulated in words; they are held in emotional patterns at subconscious level, and are very powerful. When you’re really upset or angry or suffer a sudden lack of confidence, but don’t know why your feelings are so strong, it is one of these deeply held patterns which has ambushed you. They are likely to be the cause also of any repeated difficulties in relating to particular types of people, particularly those in authority, or whom you have to influence.

So what are the practical implications of all this for you as a leader?

You may think you’re completely clear about your own motivations and values (layer 1), but it’s worth reflecting on them. You will have acquired some of  them from parents and teachers, and may find on examining them that you don’t in fact subscribe to them anymore. And do you know what is important to the individuals in your team? Our default assumption tends to be that everyone is like us, but that couldn’t be more wrong. To motivate and get the best from your team you need to know what drives each member. If you don’t know, ask.

It is easy and very worthwhile to get a better understanding of your own and your team members’ personalities (layer 2). One model which is very widely used (and has been for 70 years) is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the subject of my next blog. This will tell you some vital things about how you and your team members prefer to work, and help you use everyone’s strengths and handle the differences in a productive way. For example, you may like to talk problems through, but have a team member who prefers to have time to think about an issue before being asked for a view. You will get much more from them if you give them the time they need to think. You may be focused on the task in hand, but have a team member who is people oriented – they can be really helpful to you in alerting you to the wider team’s concerns and getting them  on side.

Layer 3 is crucial to your personal authenticity as a leader (and indeed your happiness and fulfilment). Are you in the right job? Do you care passionately about what you’re doing? Do you have an inspiring vision of where you want to get to? If you do, you need to make sure that you’re taking the time to communicate your passion and vision to the team, and then it will rub off on them. If you don’t, the people who work for you will spot it immediately and it will demotivate them.

Layer 4 is very interesting indeed. I work with people a lot on Layer 4 issues. They are common among highly successful people, particularly those in the creative industries. This may seem paradoxical, but in fact it’s not. Many driven people who strive for perfection in everything, do so because it soothes deep feelings of doubt about themselves which they acquired in childhood. People like this are therefore more common than one might think at the top levels of organisations and in creative roles. If you are one of these you need to understand yourself and what triggers your feelings of doubt. Once you have done so, you will be able to deal with them and to recognise and soothe these feelings in your team members as well.

So, though focusing on yourself and reflecting, perhaps with the expert help of a coach, may feel like an indulgence, and a distraction from getting on with the job, it may well be the best investment of time and resources you could make in the future success of your business, and indeed in your own happiness and fulfilment.

Janet Evans is a business psychologist, consultant and leadership coach, with an MA from Oxford, an MSc in Organisational Psychology, and a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring Practice. She was a senior leader in Whitehall and now works extensively in the public, private and third sectors. Her clients in the creative media industries include the All3Media Group, CreativeSkillset, TRCMedia, a number of independent producers and a host of individuals from throughout the TV, Film and Digital Industries. She can be contacted on Her website is

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