When I facilitate coaching with horses, people have various perceptions about horses based on their past experience, which can greatly affect their results. When we become aware of and work with this dynamic, we can take steps to optimize their learning.
The same happens with people. Recently I coached “Paul”, who was working with his new manager, “Sharon”. Paul stated that he knew Sharon would be overly demanding and harsh with criticism. When asked where he got these perceptions, Paul said he had not experienced this with Sharon, he just believed it based on his brief meeting with her. He went into his relationship with Sharon feeling defensive. Only after several meetings did Paul realize Sharon was empowering and supportive of his work. In the end, his assessment of Sharon was incorrect. Fortunately, Sharon was patient with Paul’s defensive attitude, and Paul was able to recognize his bias as such and change his behavior before it was too late.
Projection and transference are psychological terms for this phenomenon. Projection is seeing a quality in someone that reflects something in us. Transference is automatically responding to a current situation based on past experience. A similar dynamic is called unconscious bias. All of these can work for or against us.
It can happen in the blink of an eye, perhaps because someone has the same looks, traits, mannerisms, location, even the same first name. The results can be disastrous. When we lead a team, people can benefit from high expectations. They can also be given an inaccurate negative label that affects their entire life. And many teammates bring a perception of authority that affects their reactions to all leaders.
Self-awareness is key. When a reaction with someone is stronger than the relationship or objective information would suggest, consider that projection or transference may be involved. Get curious about it and reflect on what is true for the current situation. If someone we lead is responding in a way that reflects their past experience, we need to help them understand the current situation is different.
Everyone deserves to be recognized for their unique talents and gifts. When we lead, we are far more effective when it is about them, not us.
Bring an objective, open mind and a “clean slate” to each member of your team. By doing so you can give them the leadership they need to achieve their highest potential.