Friday, April 1, 2016

Human Irrationality 102: The Trump Phenomenon

As a psychologist, it is difficult to resist exploring the Trump phenomenon. There are two aspects to what is happening in probably the most bizarre presidential race that I have seen in my lifetime. The first is the man himself and the second, probably more important factor is the support that has gathered around him.

Most psychological profiling is undertaken using a mixture of interviews and sophisticated personality testing tools. For me, the well constructed interview is the most effective means to understanding people, if you know what you are looking for and have the right interviewing technique. To construct a profile of someone from just watching them from afar is fraught with risk. You probably wouldn’t do this with most politicians, who show very little of themselves. In the case of Donald Trump, we have a gift that keeps on giving in terms of the showing of himself. Furthermore, there is a consistency to what you see, as well as a fairly well documented history of the man himself. So, I’ll have a go.

Trump is extremely narcissistic. As well as an inflated sense of his own importance, that is at odds with reality, he is quick to anger when criticised. We have seen his angry retorts towards his critics, as well as his tendency towards litigation in his many business failures in which he quickly blames others.

It is pretty clear he lacks empathy and is extremely impulsive. This combination is unfortunate because he fails to understand the behaviour of others, is not concerned about their feelings and does not think before he acts or speaks. Added to this is an obvious, ‘Do what it takes’ attitude to getting what he wants. Ordinary people lost lots of money investing in his ventures that he, without a second thought, abandoned. He sees these people as ‘losers’. Trump just doesn’t care much about people and, gives the impression that he is a bully both at work and elsewhere.

What does Trump believe in? I suspect that he doesn’t much believe in anything, given his about-face on so many issues and his business antics. He has probably never had any long term goals-in fact he may not be able to set any. Trump has never run for any kind of political office before, has never trained himself. He was trained in the family real estate business but his ventures since then have been impulsive and, mostly ill-conceived. Apart from 4 bankruptcies, that he has been able to personally avoid, he has a string of huge business failures.

On the face of it, Trump is very confident and seems to lack anxiety. While there may be many insecurities in his deep unconscious driving this behaviour (I’ll leave it to Jung to sort this out), we see someone who believes in himself and believes that he is right. This lack of fear along with his impulsivity and inability to plan makes for an interesting combination.

I saw somewhere in the media the question of what is happening in Trump’s mind. I suspect that it is chaotic in there. He is an extreme extrovert, he thinks out loud and has a low attention to detail. There is a lot spinning around in his head and it just has to come out, verbally. Many people in public life are extraverts but Trump is completely off the scale. He just has to process information by speaking. Again this is linked to an inability to plan and to foresee consequences. I think he is probably cognitively intelligent (although I’m not totally convinced of this) but very low on social/emotional intelligence.

The support Trump has gathered is significant. Many commentators have pointed to the fear that the republican machine has gradually built up since the inauguration of Obama. He inherited an economy in a mess, two wars, social systems in chaos, high unemployment and so on, but this was sheeted home to him and his party by a cleverly orchestrated fear campaign. It is also clear that there are a lot of people suffering in the USA from a variety of causes but which can be attributed to long term middle class policy failure and the darker side of capitalism. In short, capitalism has not delivered on its promises. Trump inherited an environment of fear and has used it to his advantage.

When people, and more so groups of people, become fearful they look around for someone to blame. In Germany in the 1930s it was the Jews and many governments around the world, including the Vatican, turned a blind eye to the systematic abuse of a whole ‘nation’. In the US of A at the moment it is vilification Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, the ‘soft’ government, drug abusers, women, Bernie Sanders and all other democrats, and so on-you’ve heard it all. But this time nations, thanks to social media, are taking notice.

So, we should not be surprised, given it has happened before, that someone like Trump is able to gather people around him.  He has been able to appeal to the darker side of human nature-stereotyping, bigotry, racism, misogyny, narrow mindfulness, hatred, and the need to express discontent through violence. If it were France in the late 18th century we would hear the tumbrils clattering along the cobbled streets heading for Madame Guillotine.

Human irrationality is a fascinating phenomenon and we are seeing it in spades in the US of A right now. But, irrationality is around us all the time in everyday life and often has very unfortunate consequences. Perhaps the civilisation of the human species is a fantasy given the current state of our evolution.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Leadership: It's in the 'DNA'

I cannot overstate my belief in the importance of leadership in the functional effectiveness of groups of people. These groups include the greater society, organisations and teams. Organisational and team effectiveness, for me, needs to be measured both as quality and output of the group, and employee satisfaction (I nearly used the word happiness but that is so hard to define that I avoided it, but the idea is in the mix somewhere given people spend so much of their life at work-I think it should be as good an experience as possible).

Now, you’d be thinking that I am stating the obvious. The problem is that I don’t think it is obvious to a lot of leaders in organisations or in any social setting where leadership might exist. This is based on years of seeing atrocious leadership where organizational/social dysfunction is a result.

One of the key problems that organisations (and people electing leaders in other social setting) make is that they often don’t differentiate between leadership attributes and leadership skills. There are some people who will never be able to learn and apply effective leadership skills because they have the wrong attributes. The latter are not readily learned later in life given they are embedded in our genes, body chemistry and brain structure, or are habituated.

Those with the right attributes are worth all the training that can be thrown at them because they have the right ‘DNA’, so to speak. Let me expand on this by briefly describing a model of leadership for the 21st century that I developed a year ago and that was published by a colleague (Lisa Marue Blaschke from Germany) and I in a book on learning.

The capacity to accept and manage ambiguity


            Low need for control
            Openness to Experience (one of the Big 5 personality traits)
            Moderate on perfectionism scale (Big 5)
            High Stability (low anxiety) (Big 5)
            Honesty and integrity
            Flexibility and adaptability

(The Big 5 personality traits are acknowledged in the psychological research as being excellent and stable predictors of human behaviour)

            Reflexivity and review
            Flexible project management skills
            Effective communication of ideas
            Creativity and innovation
            Fostering an adaptive organization or team
            Developing high performing teams

The ability to foster engagement

            Flexibility to change approaches as circumstances change

            Interpersonal effectiveness
            Ability to self-regulate
            Understanding of how to motivate others
            Ability to foster a shared purpose and vision
            Performance review and corrective action
            Skilling the workforce
            Maintaining direction
            Customer focus
            Conflict resolution and negotiation
The capacity to learn

            Willingness to change own ideas or beliefs
            Courage and integrity

            Reflection, reflexivity and action learning
            Ability to research and learn
            Having wide and accessible networks
            Ability to share openly with others
            Knowledge management skills
            The ability to foster collaborative learning
            Ability to apply learning
            Technical capability
            Growth and development       

The ability to use open systems thinking

            Willingness to empower others

            The capacity to frequently scan the external environment
            Ability to foster participative democracy/collaboration decision-making and process
            Capacity to work in a team as leader and member
            Ongoing internal and external analysis of effectiveness (continuous             improvement)
            The ability to filter information (research skills)
            Customer focus
            Action orientation
            Business awareness

Hopefully, the reader can see the difference between attributes and skills, even though I have not expanded much on the dimensions. I think it is necessary to employ on attributes in the first instance, given appropriate technical skills to perform the work. However, technical skill deficits can be made up through training. Selecting a leader with the wrong attributes can be very expensive. So, the emphasis on employment or promotion should be on attributes. Clever organisations get this. Many less than clever organisations do not. The election of leaders in social contexts, including our politicians is also less than clever in many instances. In short, we need to get the selection process right.