This is a quick follow up post to yesterday’s screed about mistakes and stupidity.
So when you boil it all down, why do we make mistakes?
BTW, when other folks screw up, it is tempting to presume bad intent or incapacity. Scoundrels! Idiots! When we screw up, we usually complain that circumstances were too tough or that it was not important. It wasn’t my fault! It’s no big deal! So for purposes of this discussion, let’s lump us all together. Let’s presume that we share positive intent, similar capacity and circumstances. We still screw up even when decisions are important to get right. Why?
As the Heath Bros point out, there are different categories of mistake in decision making. But the underlying problem in each category is the same. It is hard for us to SEE what is beyond our noses. In a nutshell, we tend to
- narrow down our scope of vision,
- see what we want to believe,
- color our perception by emotion, and
- over-estimate our perceptual capacity.
How could this be! Aren’t we masters of the planet? We are indeed, though we should admit that we are imperfect masters. We have developed fantastic tools that have taken us this far, but we still wrestle with our imperfections, even as we reach out to explore “infinity and beyond” (from the hilarious movie “Toy Story”).
My own view is that we have inherited the above tendencies. Earlier on in our evolution, focus, belief, emotion and confidence may have been useful for survival in the wild. But in those days, humans did not have to cope with much abstraction. In the modern world, much of our society has abstract foundations. And we have to balance abstract and real stuff. So we get into trouble. We can’t see so clearly how the two inter-relate.
This is a problem for all of us, including CEO’s. Ram Charon says
Perceptual acuity … is in short supply. I can think of five major companies that went under in the past five years because the CEO couldn’t see how, or how fast, the game was changing.
In case you are wondering, perceptual acuity is the ability to see. Yikes!
Here is my concern. It is easy to start believing that you have found the “magic bullet” that will solve all problems. It is just as easy to start believing that no solutions are possible at all. You just have to suffer for your sins. The temptation in both cases grows when you feel stressed by crisis. And in each case, you are blinded. The danger from these attitudes is not eliminated just because you live in an open society. As we have just seen, the danger can become worse if we accept poor attitude as normal. For example, vilifying opponents when they question your “magic bullet” argument.
We need to accept that folks will fall into the above blinding attitude traps and we need to adjust our mental processes and communications to help avoid them. This is why Dan Pink got so excited in outlining a process for how to sell. Selling is about helping people see. Selling addresses a key human weakness. And in our current setting, I think we need to start selling better attitude.
There is also a structural element to solving this problem. It is critical to set the right standard at the top - in how decisions are framed, made and implemented. This means insisting on credible argument as well as strong opinion. From a leadership perspective, losing credibility is worse than being wrong. Because when you have lost credibility, no one will listen to you any more.
Again from Ram
So you can’t be a great decision maker without credibility?
None of your decisions will be executed. Credibility also helps you gain access to the right people, the right information, investments, and support. In some cases, it’s what allows you to make the right decision in the first place.
As you read the phrase “gain(ing) access to the right people …” keep in mind that in the 21st century, connectivity is everything. You are who you are connected with. So if you cannot gain access to the right people, you are (to put it bluntly) screwed.
Ram is bringing out that one can create a downward spiral that starts from poor vision. Poor vision leads to poor decision making. You get “spilled milk”. That in turn leads to lost credibility when you don’t clean it up. Lost credibility then cuts you off from future opportunities. At some point, you won’t be head chef anymore. You might even get kicked out of the kitchen. And perhaps you should be.
Something to think about.
FOLLOW UP - Just after I wrote this, I saw Dylan Scott’s post that at least some tea party congressmen think that they lost because they did not go far enough.
The problem wasn’t that they’d taken an unpopular, strategically questionable position, they said. It’s that they didn’t effectively communicate their position to the American public. The firm belief that the American public shares the same view of Obamacare that they do, that it is a disaster that needs to be stopped, remains omnipresent among hard-line conservatives. (emphasis added)
This type of “firm belief” that drives extreme action without interest in reality testing shows a serious attitude problem. What reality testing, you might ask? (1) what evidence is there that the American people failed to get their message before, during and now after the latest crisis? (2) what evidence is there that Obamacare is a disaster? (3) what evidence is there that the American people share this view? (4) what evidence is that that the American people would support extreme action yet again — even if (1) and (2) and (3) are true?
The polling data that I have heard about suggest (1) the American people got the message (2) the majority of Americans do not agree that Obamacare is a disaster and (3) the large majority take the view that none of the above justified the shutdown or refusal to raise the debt ceiling.
Moreover, I have heard health care experts say that (1) the health care system pre-Obamacare was broken (2) Obamacare fixes the problems and (3) the republicans presented no credible alternatives to Obamacare. Indeed, Obamacare was originally a republican party idea. And while the rollout of Obamacare has had problems, this has been due to larger demand than was anticipated, not some inherent objection to the new system.
See what I mean? The argument put forward to justify extreme action seems to float in mid-air. It has no foundation in reality. And apparently, those putting this forward don’t seem to notice. This is what I would label an attitude problem. And if we tolerate attitude problems like this in leadership, we are in the midst of institutional crisis.