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Why is it important for business leaders and managers to understand the unconscious side of the mind?

By Shandel McAuliffe | |11 minute read
Why is it important for business leaders and managers to understand the unconscious side of the mind?

Our unconscious mind houses our model of the world and holds our values, beliefs, biases, patterns, motivations, and communication and learning styles within it. We have an unconscious pattern for pretty much everything we do in life – the way we handle conflict, have difficult conversations, make friendships, give and receive feedback, achieve goals, deal with stress, and so on.

Our unconscious mind is unique to us as it has been formed over years of experience. It is influenced by culture, history, upbringing, and our exposure to the world.

If one does not understand that their unconscious mind is different to another person’s, they can inadvertently project their model of the world onto them without being aware of it. Possible consequences of this include adverse impacts on mental health, unnecessary conflict, lack of respect, miscommunication, breakdown in relationships, stress, and overwhelm.


For a leader or manager to be effective in the workplace, it is imperative that they understand the important role that their unconscious mind plays in their behaviour and choices. It will allow them to:

1. Understand their own values and motivations and how they can coexist with an organisation’s values and those of their colleagues.

2. Be aware of how their beliefs may have influenced the deeper mental models of their organisation which can impact strategic progress.

3. Understand, develop and bring out the best in their team members by respecting their models of the world and being flexible with communication and feedback.

For instance, a client of mine, Sue, ran a law firm. Sue found it difficult to manage the performance of staff and would shy away from giving feedback or hold people accountable. She had an unconscious pattern of people pleasing and wanting to be liked. This behaviour affected the performance of her team and the growth of her firm. This created a firm culture of under-performance, silos and low morale because staff were not given appropriate feedback to help them improve and grow. By firstly becoming aware and understanding this unconscious pattern of people pleasing, then taking action to change it, Sue became a more effective manager and learned how to provide feedback in a constructive way.

Another client who could have benefited from understanding his unconscious sooner is business owner, Andrew. Coming out of lockdown, Andrew was convinced that his team wanted to and needed to come back to the office in order to rebuild team solidarity and cohesion. After making the call, Andrew’s team resisted his decision. Andrew interpreted their reaction to be a lack of positivity and became withdrawn from his business and his role as a leader. After working with him, Andrew discovered that he was projecting his perspective of team solidarity and cohesiveness when in fact his team was able to do that virtually during lockdown. Andrew preferred to be in the office and around people to be productive and he had assumed that everyone else felt the same way.

4. Challenge their own unconscious biases. Unconscious biases are certain beliefs that a person might have that may then influence their behaviour and choices. The bias could be about certain groups of people or situations. These biases live in the unconscious mind and can sometimes be very difficult to detect without a deep sense of self awareness. It is important for managers and leaders to understand, firstly, that they have unconscious biases and, secondly, to challenge them when they appear. This may mean that they ask other team members for their input in a decision that may be at risk of unconscious bias, be curious about their own motivations for certain decisions, and challenge their own perceptions.

For instance, a manager may hold an unconscious gender bias. When recruiting for a position, they may unconsciously prefer a male candidate to a female who is a mother due to beliefs that she may not perform as well as a male who does not have dependents. If a manager reflects on why they made that decision, they may uncover unconscious bias and possibly make different choices and potentially create a more gender-balanced team.

5. Anticipate and avoid conflict, or actively choose the best way to manage it. It is often the case that conflict resolution is a reaction rather than a response. Conflict for the unconscious mind is a threat and left unchecked the unconscious mind will revert back to our fight or flight instinct. We see many managers who avoid difficult situations that can result in conflict, like Sue for example or many others who will confront and have a combative style conflict resolution. When we can understand that it is our unconscious instinct of survival that may be driving our reactions to conflict then we can make better informed choices about the best approach for the situation, the team member and the organisation.

6. Achieve better results by aligning their intention with their attention. Our intention also lives in the unconscious mind. It is what is behind our behaviour and emotions. When we can align our unconscious intention with our attention then we can move forward to achieve results. We see many managers and leaders who have aspirations for their teams and intentions for growth but focus their attention on endeavours that do not support their intentions and what they want.

How might unconscious negative thinking patterns affect an employee in the workplace?

Negative thinking patterns can completely derail an employee’s success at work. Negative thinking can very much be an unconscious pattern that was probably imprinted at a young age. This can have the effect of creating a hypervigilant approach to life and work and a pessimistic outlook on life.

A client of mine, Peta, is a prime example of how negative thoughts can affect an employee’s performance in the workplace.

Peta struggled with negative thoughts every day and anticipated that things would go wrong. In the workplace though, they caused havoc with her confidence, focus and decision-making and caused her to always ‘play it safe’. While being very articulate and capable, Peta did not put herself forward for opportunities and would regularly choose comfort over risk. She struggled to build networks and shied away from business development.

It did not stop there though. Peta’s pessimism in the workplace also resulted in low productivity and output, and made her a liability to the company. This all came to a head when Peta received a warning from her manager that her performance was affecting the company’s ability to attract new work and that if she did not change, it would be the end of the road for her.

After spending some time with Peta, she discovered that she had been conditioned to focus on the negative and that this had created a pattern of pessimism, hypervigilance, and anxiety. Her language reflected this pattern with lots of ‘what ifs’, ‘I don’t want’, and ‘I’m too scared to’. Peta had experienced many negative situations as a child and so her unconscious mind created a pattern that directed her focus on all the negatives. That then resulted in negative self talk, fear of uncertainty and change, procrastination, and a feeling of being stuck.

What are the most common mistakes people make with their unconscious thinking?

1. People ask for what they do not want rather than what they do want. The trouble with this is that their unconscious mind does not process negatives directly. It needs us to think about the thing that we don’t want to think about so we know what we’re not supposed to think about! This is another way of saying our attention is not aligned with our intention.

2. Unhelpful internal dialogue is another one. The most important conversations that we will have are the ones that we have with ourselves, when we are by ourselves about ourselves. Internal dialogue is the most powerful influence that we can have on ourselves. Our conscious mind is constantly listening to our internal dialogue and because it takes everything literally we need to be extremely careful with how we speak to ourselves.

Many people use unhelpful language and deprecating ways of speaking to themselves that cause self-confidence and self-esteem issues.

3. For so many of us there is a lack of awareness of the existence or the influence that the unconscious mind has in our lives. Our unconscious mind forms 90% of our mind, yet for so many people there’s a lot of emphasis on our conscious thinking mind as though that is the entirety of the mind. The problem with that is that people can get stuck in reflexive loops of thought, believing that all their problems can be solved on that level. But when we can tap into and understand the unconscious mind and the higher conscious mind which forms part of the unconscious mind we then have access to more choice in our response which, as Viktor Frankel* says, is the source of our power.

4. Not being able to process emotions. This creates patterns of unresourceful behaviour.

What are your top three recommendations for harnessing the unconscious mind?

1. Set your intention for what you want to notice in your day. Setting daily intentions can help you direct your unconscious mind to find ways to support you to behave the way you want to, be who you want to and show up the way you want to. My favourite daily intentions are around gratitude, contribution to and connection with others, and learning.

2. Focus on improving your internal dialogue. Understand that your unconscious mind is there to serve you and that you can feed it with what you want it to do for you, not the other way around. My number one tip here is to turn your internal dialogue into questions that start with ‘how’ or ‘what’ rather than statements that may be unhelpful towards yourself. My favourite question to ask myself in stressful situations that may produce negative self-talk is: “What can I do right now that will help me move forward?” followed by: “What is the gift in this?”

3. Be your own coach. Question the thoughts that infiltrate your mind and become familiar with them. This can result in you testing and challenging unhelpful beliefs about yourself and the world.

The unconscious mind is as good and helpful as we allow it to be, and ultimately, we are in charge of our minds and therefore our results!

*Further information on Viktor Frankel: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/viktor_e_frankl_160380 and A man's search for meaning

Lara Wentworth is a co-founder and director of Coaching Advocates

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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