Tacit Leadership: Power of the Implicit

By Mark Graybill

Updated Over a Week Ago

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During my early days in the Air Force as a young non-commissioned officer, I began to wonder why airmen would feel motivated to please one leader and not another.  Why “yessir” invoked positive emotion for the former and negative for the latter. How could I be the kind of leader that motivated like the former?

Thirty years ago, the Air Force may have been ahead of the time in first-line leadership training. For instance, including the application of psychology.  But none of the training I received really explained this phenomenon. I did learn how to motivate in positive ways using concepts I was trained with, now fairly well covered, including on this site.

However, I felt there was far more involved. And as usual with me, I had to get to the roots.  It wasn’t until twenty years later that I even began to understand.

Game Theory

Over the recent past, we’ve seen the application of game theory, which some laud as capturing the gist of such elusive phenomena. As catchy and tempting game theory may be, given its perceived power to describe the sociopolitical game, few have captured it as eloquently as Robert Jackall. It will not be applied here.

This article endeavors to bring actual empirical findings to your reading in a way that is useful. I believe understanding the origins of subtle human behavior will empower you far more than social world constructs such as game theory.

Although hoping is a bad strategy, here’s hoping this strategy works for you.

What is Tacit Leadership?

Leadership is not about you; it is about your team. You come into play because the buck stops with you and because you are the one that probably needs to change when change is needed.

Tacit leadership is the front line of leadership. It involves all the ways about you as a leader that influence followers but are not explicitly obvious. Examples of the obvious might be choice of language, or following through with a promise or not following through.

An example of the less obvious is how you regard a direct report as conveyed in ways difficult to detect and difficult to describe if detected. I call such less obvious phenomena The Implicit.

Tacit Leadership

Involved in The Implicit are behavior and neural processes we are not consciously aware of, even though we often do later become consciously aware of resulting positive or negative feelings. I realize this definition may be a little nebulous. Indeed, much more remains to be discussed and thus understood. I will attempt to guide you on a short journey to a more useful definition, which is what  I believe is best served under a perspective many are not accustomed to.


What is the most important element of leadership that is also the most challenging?  If you thought “human element”, you thought correctly. If your thoughts included the word “manage”, you may be thinking about management, which is a different animal.

To some, leadership and management are different species from different taxonomical branches. To others, the two are different sides of the same coin. At the same time, yet others prefer to avoid discussions of leadership altogether (keep it easy, remove the human element).  Given you are reading this, I assume you are not of the latter.

You may think the question about the human element was academic and perhaps useless. But it wasn’t just a second-rate subject for the nut graph. My intent was to bring the human element, specifically the individual human being, to center stage.

Since most people are accustomed to thinking about people from the perspective of the social world, the advanced perspective I hope to convey is not readily intuitive for many people. By spotlighting the human organism, I hope to circumvent the model we typically employ in our view of others.

Peel Away Social Ideas

To unravel this typical model, we need to peel away the social ideas we use to associate with individuals or groups of individuals – especially ideas about personality and character.  We also need to peel away all the markers of individuality such as facial features, age, race, gender, religion, behaviors, accents, sexual orientation and any other feature until all that remains is the human organism.

But don’t worry; you can and should return those markers and features once we are finished here.  Everyone deserves to be recognized as a unique and invaluable individual.

This process may be unnerving for some and may even appear to objectify and reduce people to mere animals. Such is not the intent. But such a response is not uncommon and may be indicative of the perceptual mismatch I am referring to.  Fear not; it is good to question your responses.

In fact, consciously questioning our responses – especially our automatic responses – is the main device for improving tacit leadership.

We are a complex organism – perhaps the most complex in our universe. At the very top of our game, we exhibit a conscious intelligence that may forever elude scientific understanding. But such is only the best of us that surface only at our best times. The majority of the rest of the time is a different story.

We are comprised of layers of interacting capabilities, tendencies, and functions – the less impressive of which are, more often than we like, running the show.

The Implicit originates out of the less impressive, lower levels of human nature – much of which we share with other social creatures.

The Implicit

The basic definition of implicit is any thought or behavior that occurs before, underneath, or despite conscious awareness. This is important to realize because as such, implicit thoughts and resulting behavior can occur even if they are in conflict with what we would consciously profess. Many subtopics on implicit vs. explicit are worth discussing. But for now, we’ll just focus on a couple of phenomena of this implicit side of the human being.

Just before the turn of the new millennium, social psychologists published a website to demonstrate a revolutionary new test called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT.  The test is believed to measure preconscious or implicit attitudes about stereotyped groups of people.

The Results Were Striking

After two years and over 600,000 tasks from anonymous internet participants, a pattern emerged where most respondents showed a preference for whites.  Black faces were associated more quickly with negative words than with positive, and white faces more quickly with positive than with negative. And the most interesting aspect of this phenomenon is it wasn’t confined to just whites – black participants also showed a higher preference for white faces, though not as many.

For many participants, their IAT results conflicted with their self-reported measures. They claimed not to have a racial preference, but the IAT revealed they had a strong preference for whites. This exposed the all-too-common conflict that can occur between beliefs we know we have and how we behave on automatic. The conflict between the explicit and the implicit sides of us.

Although the IAT is riddled with controversy and involves far more complex concepts than how it is usually viewed, the speed at which associations are recalled is real and measurable.

The core idea is that the association operates below conscious awareness, hence: implicit.

Feedback Loop

feedback loop

You may already be forming ideas about how this relates to leadership, and you might be right.  However, I would discourage viewing the Race IAT as revealing people as secretly racist – such is not what the test reveals.  I discussed the IAT to illuminate just a tiny nugget of the implicit side of us – fundamental tendencies that influence behavior but operate below our awareness and often in spite of conscious control.

There is a system behind The Implicit. This system has a feedback loop of one person conveying messages and another interpreting the messages, and we tend to attribute the meaning we associate with messages to the intent of the sender instead of saying it was what we interpreted.

This is important to understand because we err much more than we think in this regard – one manifestation of which is called The Fundamental Attribution Error.

Power of The Implicit: Two Examples

What I refer to as a message is far more than deliberate communications.  The thing is, the conscious mind is not built to detect the subtle nuances of behavior others interpret.  In fact, it is easy for us to interpret messages that do not exist. Such erroneous interpretation can occur because such subtle nuances of behavior are usually processed at the lower levels of human brain function. We only become aware of feelings or emotions after such processing.

Our response to what we interpret can then induce the behavior we interpreted and expect in others along the same subconscious (implicit) feedback system in what is called a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006).

If we have not begun to consciously become aware of this feedback loop, we are only aware of the results of the process. Thus, it may be likely that primitive biological, and social goals stemming from the lower strata of human nature are influencing our interpretation. Such is problematic when the goal is incompatible with the social situation.

But we so easily can spin meaning to hide the conflict – not even realizing that is what we are doing. This may be how some leaders can unknowingly be the source of a choking sociopolitical culture – by operating according to their social instinct.

Stereotype Threat

I just described how we could interpret messages and behave in ways that induce behavior in others according to how we interpreted or expect – even if the behavior didn’t first manifest. The other side of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is our tendency to automatically behave according to the expectation from others we perceive, whether real or not. This leads to the second example of The Implicit: Stereotype Threat.

The fundamental aspect of Stereotype Threat is the other side of The Implicit system, involving expected behavior based on a common stereotype (Stone, Sjomeling, Lynch, & Darley, 1999). The Stereotype Threat phenomenon refers to stereotyped members of a group fearing this other side of the system will automatically behave according to the stereotype.

Most of the time, people are not aware of this fear or this other side of the system.  Stereotype Threat is only an easily detected manifestation of our fundamental tendency to implicitly behave as others expect.

no stereotypes

Social Ideas

You may have heard of these phenomena or not, but it is worth it for you to explore them further regardless.  Keep in mind as you explore beyond this article, you will be inclined to use social ideas and concepts to understand them.

It is important to look at these from the new perspective I offered here because these phenomena often ensue regardless of conscious awareness and thus originate outside the realm of social ideas.

What is Your Experience With Tacit Leadership?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
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