Back to the Future: Self-Affirmation as a Leadership Tool

January 20th, 2013

by Filomena Warihay, Ph.D. and Rosaria Hawkins, Ph.D.

More than 40 years ago, I read the book Psycho-Cybernetics, written by a plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Maltz’s book was one of those life-altering reads for me. He reported that it took his patients about three weeks to adjust to their new selves. It didn’t matter whether the patient had to adjust to a surgically enhanced face or to the loss of a limb. Only those patients who were able to perform “emotional surgery” – changing the way they viewed themselves – were able to derive the physical benefits of their reconstruction.

Maltz applied his theory of emotional surgery to life in general. He described the human brain as being like the computer on a guided missile; designed to automatically find a path to the target. His basic premise was simple. Imbed your target – the achievement of your fondest dreams – in your mind in great detail. Spend about ten minutes each day to envision and affirm yourself as already having achieved whatever it is to which you aspire. Do it in minute detail: the colors, the sights, the sounds and even the smells. Then, take at least one action every day to move yourself toward the goal(s).

At the time I was a single parent raising four children, working two jobs and struggling financially. Hell! What could I lose by following Maltz’s method? I wrote out five giamongus goals in all the glorious detail of having achieved them. I typed each one on a 5 x 8 card (no computers back then) and listed one action I would take each day for the next three weeks. Although I didn’t achieve my goals immediately, I did form the habits that allowed me to acquire three degrees, clean up my relationship with my son, start an enormously successful company, develop exceptional consulting skills in my team members, develop a life-long loving relationship with my husband, Dan, and adopt a life-long fitness program that I still follow today.

Forty years later, Science Daily reports that self-affirmation has even more powerful effects! Researchers at the University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins University identified neurophysiological reactions that explain how self-affirming individuals are more attentive and emotionally receptive to errors that they make. As a result they are able to preserve their self-worth in the face of shortcomings, remain open to feedback when there is room for improvement,  and are better able to correct for their mistakes.

Who knew? Seems to me that the strategies self-affirming leaders can not only enhance their own performance, they can support their direct reports as well by encouraging them to adopt similar thinking to generate more openness to feedback and significantly improve organizational performance.