One of the primary reasons why leaders struggle with changing both themselves and their organisational cultures is that they fail to differentiate between horizontal development and vertical growth, and they focus most of their growth efforts on horizontal development.
As I define them, horizontal development means developing the skills and gaining the knowledge you need to work in the organisation to get your job done efficiently, effectively and safely. Vertical development is much deeper. It means developing the ability to change how you perceive and value your inner and outer world (mindset), then building the self-regulating awareness to support the development of new behaviours in a sustainable way aligned with your core values.
To truly develop as leaders and create sustainable organisational change, leaders must focus their efforts mostly on vertical growth.
To illustrate this, we once received a phone call from the head of culture for a multinational division. She had desperately been trying to change the culture, but to no avail. She came to us asking for strategic advice.
I asked her what she had implemented so far. She had been busy with endless events and webinars on a huge range of relevant and interesting subjects. Her people were practically drowning in cool events and awesome guest speakers.
‘How effective has it been so far?’ I asked.
She was silent for a moment, before admitting with embarrassment that the culture and leadership behaviour was as bad as ever.
She was implementing what we call an ‘information spray-and-pray’ approach to development, throwing masses of information at people, hoping at least some of it would stick and actually change behaviour. But all the information and skill building in the world are not enough to deliver long-term, significant, sustainable cultural change. We need to go deeper.
A common mistake organisations make that contributes to this wasted investment is believing that cultivating self-awareness and personal growth is a matter of developing new skills or gaining new knowledge. Unfortunately, this simplistic approach entirely misses the point.
Differentiating Between Horizontal Development and Vertical Growth
Focusing on horizontal skills and training without vertical growth is like planting a flower in poorly fertilised soil. Unable to take root or gain the necessary nourishment to grow, it cannot flourish and will inevitably just wither away. An organisation can spend millions of dollars training its leaders in horizontal skills and knowledge, but it’s a poor investment unless it’s preceded and supported by vertical growth (and the use of behavioural science).
Without a foundation of vertical growth, our ability to apply horizontal skills and knowledge wisely is limited, although, ironically, we typically remain in denial of these limitations. To change our behaviour we must first see it and explore it objectively in order to best understand where it comes from as well as cultivate the ability to manage it in real time.
One client we worked with was interested in developing accountability and a growth mindset in their organisation. They introduced the concept of ‘victim versus players’ borrowed from another leadership development provider. They wanted ‘players’ in their teams — people who did not make excuses or play victim, but were proactive and had a can-do attitude. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that applying this concept in their culture was backfiring. When someone challenged an idea or way of working, or challenged poor behaviour in an attempt to hold people accountable, they were accused of being a victim.
Many well-intentioned people within the organisation were embodying a player mentality, but the lack of self-awareness and vertical growth in many of the leaders resulted in a distortion of the intention behind the principles. A ‘player’ became someone who agreed to any request, worked unreasonable hours and accepted poor behaviour. This is why it is so dangerous to ignore vertical growth. All too often, wonderful horizontal knowledge and skills end up getting twisted into the very opposite of their intent.
With vertical growth training, we transcend the unconscious emotional and reactive brain to connect with our higher-order brain functions that allow us to self-regulate as well as make more informed and creative decisions. Vertical growth enables us to more readily bypass the conditioned reactions that have kept us safe over the years but now hold us back from our full potential and deepest happiness.
Furthermore, personal vertical growth enables leaders to empower and develop their people. Susanne Schaffert, President of Novartis Oncology, shared with me why vertical growth is important to her: ‘When it comes to dealing with a crisis, what leaders are asked for is not specific skillsets. It goes much deeper than that. What we are asked to do is inspire people toward achieving common goals. We are asked to energise and comfort people and give them confidence. The biggest impact we can have as leaders is not what we personally do with our skills, but rather what we inspire our people to do through our character. And how can we become inspirational leaders if we are not grounded, balanced and mindful? It’s impossible.’
Vertical growth cuts through image management
‘So, Pat, how did it go with your boss, Robin?’ I asked.
‘Not great,’ Pat replied.
‘Well, after we completed that anonymous survey on Robin’s leadership, we were invited to a meeting to discuss the results. When we got into the meeting, the very first thing Robin said was, “Team, thanks for the feedback. There’s good stuff in there, but I just want to say that you have all rated me poorly on empowerment, and I totally disagree with your ratings. I know I’m great at empowering you.”
‘The entire team and I just sat there and nodded in agreement. We were wrong, Robin was right. Robin left the meeting smiling, we left feeling disengaged once again. I remember promising myself I’d never be honest again. What’s the point? But, you know, pretty much every boss I’ve had has been the same.’
Challenges of Applying Concepts Without Self-Awareness
Sadly, defensiveness, denial and even blame occur every day in organisations, families and relationships. Instead of taking a self-aware, growth-mindset approach to life’s challenges, like Robin we often defend our self-image to protect ourselves from emotional discomfort. We don’t do this because we are dishonest or because we don’t want to grow. Rather, we have been hijacked by our primitive brain and the old coping mechanisms that were designed to help us manage difficult feelings like overwhelm, fear, hurt and insecurity.
To add to this, our research indicates that less than 10 per cent of us have been educated on how to regulate our emotions, handle challenging feedback and cultivate self-awareness. Is it any wonder that we so often choose protection over growth, image management over vulnerability and numbness over facing difficult feelings?
This phenomenon negatively impacts mental wellbeing, careers, families, teams, organisations, even nations. It ensures we keep repeating behaviour patterns that don’t serve us or others well. This is the price tag of a lack of self-awareness and the associated absence of a vertical growth mindset.
The Impact of Vertical Growth on Engagement and Wellbeing
Given that up to 40 per cent of an organisation’s time and energy may be wasted on image management, it’s no wonder that engagement levels in organisations are so low. In the second half of 2021, for example, Gallup reported that employee engagement rates in the United States had dropped to a dismal 34 per cent. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged workers in the US is 2.1 to 1, down from 2.6 to 1 in 2020.1
As humans we are hardwired for self-protection and survival, which includes the need to please and be accepted by our tribe. Managing one’s image is a modern-day survival mechanism. We can spend a lifetime in this mode without consciously noticing it, including enjoying a brilliant career and accomplished life, as seen through the lens of society. So why do we need self-awareness and vertical growth?
Behind the gloss of image management, we can actually suffer tremendously. The vast majority of accomplished leaders secretly experience ‘imposter syndrome’. If we dig a little deeper, they will admit they need validation to deal with deep insecurities. (McKinsey and Co coined the term the insecure overachiever to describe this global phenomenon.) As a result, they struggle with being truly values-based. Andre Viljoen, CEO of Fiji Airways, calls this phenomenon ‘the plastic hero’. No amount of external success will ever make Pinocchio (our self-image) a real boy or girl. The fancy titles, and the deference and privilege that come with them, are not who we are. Secretly, we know this, and we dread the inevitable loss of this image.
The greatest privilege of our careers has been earning the trust of exceptionally talented and successful people who have had the courage to admit that image is not satisfying, that one never reaches a golden moment when image management results in deep self-acceptance and true inner peace. We have worked with wonderful people who have grown beyond the need for protection and image approval and sought out a life of inner exploration, personal growth and internal congruence to find a profound sense of joy, meaning and resilience.
This is the purpose of developing self-awareness and embracing vertical growth. We are blessed with an amazing mind–body system that has an astonishing capacity for lifelong learning, the development of noble, inspiring qualities, and the realisation of profound inner congruence and wellbeing. Those who can unleash this capacity can make a profound impact on culture, performance and wellbeing in organisations.
This is why we are particularly passionate about focusing on leaders. The research shows that nothing impacts people’s work experience and performance more than the behaviour of those in leadership roles. Having self-aware leaders who consciously self-lead within an organisation is how we create values-based, high-trust, innovative organisations that build people up and increase psychological safety, wellbeing and performance in today’s increasingly complex and uncertain world.