Unlocking psychological sense

BY: Susan Fowler

PUBLISHED: February 22, 2023

Initially posted on SmartBrief, February 22, 2023

Coping with radical change is taxing. For people to thrive rather than merely survive requires complex processing, reflection, learning — and psychological sense. 

Psychological sense™ is a person’s ability to fulfill their foundational psychological needs so they can experience optimal motivation, sustained high performance, and a state of thriving. When people unlock their psychological sense, they fulfill their foundational need for choice, connection and competence that generates optimal motivation. The vitality created through optimal motivation is essential for all of us to adapt to change with resilience and innovation, achieve results and flourish — at the same time.

Unlocking people’s psychological sense — and your own

I urge you to rethink how you’ve approached leadership in the past. You need new and different leadership capacities to help unlock people’s psychological sense. I presented twelve empirically-sound leadership skills in an academic journal that encourage choice, deepen connection and build competence. I have a new book being published outlining how these skills create an optimally motivated workforce by unlocking people’s psychological sense.

But before helping others unlock their psychological sense, you need to begin with your own. These three examples might be a good place to start to create choice, connection and competence for yourself with a ripple effect that unlocks psychological sense in others.

But before helping others unlock their psychological sense, you need to begin with your own. These three examples might be a good place to start to create choice, connection and competence for yourself with a ripple effect that unlocks psychological sense in others.

Create choice: What not to do

I won’t try to improve on this paraphrased statement by former Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger describing the leader’s role in encouraging choice.

“Every day when you wake up, you have a battle in your heart between, I’ll call it good and evil, or light and darkness. You always have to fight that. It is really easy to let the dark parts of your heart overtake your thinking. You don’t have to think too hard to do that. Your fear manifests in how you act. When somebody in power and leadership stands in front of you and speaks out the dark parts of your heart, it gives you permission to let that overtake you. And that’s why a leader’s job is to not do that. A leader’s job is to avoid the temptation to speak the darkest parts of the heart.”

Kinzinger’s insight reminds us that you are leading people somewhere. Where? Leading people into darkness, division and dissent dissipates their energy. Groveling in grievance requires constant fueling that drains energy. But leading people into the light means focusing on optimism, hopefulness and a belief in a positive outcome that generates the vitality people need to face everyday challenges.
You have a choice as a leader to speak out of the dark parts of your heart or unlock your own psychological sense by reaching for something far more powerful and illuminating. The choices you embrace either diminish your positive energy or stimulate vitality. But what you choose to voice also makes a difference in the quality of people’s motivation and whether they languish with suboptimal motivation or flourish with optimal motivation.

Create connection: Lead with optimism

The author of more than 30 books including the bestselling Leaders and On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis is widely regarded as the pioneer of contemporary leadership studies. My husband’s Ph.D. thesis was a qualitative, ethnographic study of Bennis’ term as the president of Cincinnati University. I’ve always been fascinated by the description of how Bennis handled a particularly thorny situation. Now I understand why it resonated.

After building a state-of-the-art medical school, the university needed additional funds to staff it. As a state-run institution, Bennis needed to get funding approval from the legislature. They might agree, but they wanted something in return: a radical increase of in-state students. The faculty was adamantly against the idea. At the time, 95% of the medical students came from outside of Ohio. Faculty members believed they got higher-quality candidates and of course, out-of-state tuition was higher than in-state.
The state legislature thought Bennis should use his command-and-control prerogative as president of the university to dictate the change in student enrollment. But Bennis had to lead and live with his faculty and knew that approach would be painful in the short term and fail in the long term. So, he collected arguments from both factions and presented the information to the two sides in large joint meeting. Then he told them not to leave the room until they had a deal.
In the end, the ratio was flipped, with 85% of the student base from Ohio; 15% from outside of the state — and the med school received the funding it needed.

Bennis revealed the nature of his leadership after the matter was settled through his answer to this question: When you’re leading from the belly of the whale with intense pressure from all sides, how do you keep going and not give up?

Bennis had a simple, but profound, answer. Optimism. Bennis understood the implications of authoritarian versus inclusive leadership. He appreciated the benefits of transformational leadership. But, when you’re in the belly of the whale, you will take the easy way out if you’re not fortified by optimism: the hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.
Allowing optimism to guide your leadership creates connection. By focusing on his abiding sense of purpose, the welfare of the greater good, and contributing to others rather than his own self-serving agenda, Bennis’ own psychological sense enabled the factions to find common ground.

Create competence: Challenge low-effort thinking

Low-effort thinking is involuntary and basically effortless. High-effort thinking is intentional and requires effort. I encourage you to read my SmartBrief article defining low-effort thinking — and that challenges you to consider the quality of your own thinking.

My advice: don’t settle for low-effort thinking. Sure, sometimes low-effort thinking is good enough. But for people to thrive in flat organizations and unparalleled pace of change, they need you to be a source of increased awareness of alternatives and decisions. They need your critical thinking to help them sort through options and come to their own realistic and practical conclusions.

As you make decisions, shape outcomes and finalize plans, you can create competence (and unlock your psychological sense) by asking questions that promote your own high-effort thinking. Ask yourself, What evidence do I have for this decision? Why do I believe this evidence is more reliable than another resource? What am I willing to accept as proof that a plan, idea, data or information is valid? Can I find a different perspective that might open my mind to alternatives that help me grow and learn as a leader?

From psychological sense to common sense

When you focus on unlocking people’s psychological sense, you spark a virtuous cycle: you promote choice, connection and competence so people can experience optimal motivation. They experience optimal motivation and improve their ability to navigate the complexities of change, strengthen effective coping mechanisms and thrive despite the challenges they face. Your leadership capacity to encourage choice, deepen connection and build competence can help transform psychological sense into common sense.
But before you try helping the people you lead unlock their psychological sense, focus on unlocking your own. Then, you can share your vitality to support others as they achieve results, sustain high performance, and thrive — all at the same time.
(Image credit: alphaspirit/Getty Images)

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Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing” Her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals” presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard.

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