The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Your Search for insightful leader

It started by mistake. As I pondered the topic for this newsletter, I picked up the kaleidoscope on my desk. It sits there to remind me to always see other perspectives. By mistake, I stared through the wrong end. Have you ever looked at the back end of a kaleidoscope? There is no swirl of color or dynamic image. Instead, you only see small fragments of colored bits.

The magic happens when those colored bits spin together into intricate designs. That’s when I realized that it’s the same for an insightful leader.  The colored bits are like their fundamental skills that swirl together to create deeper insights just as the kaleidoscope creates amazing images.

It’s those deeper insights that increase effectiveness and impact.

What then are the fundamental skills of an insightful leader? At the core, insightful leaders appreciate that leadership takes more than just data – it requires objective thinking and an appreciation of feelings – theirs and others. These leaders understand that they need basic skills to manage themselves and to understand other people – whether directing, inspiring, motivating or coaching. It’s not about being agreeable. It’s about being insightful.

After considering all that I learned through experience and through interviews with executives, here is a list of fundamental insightful leadership skills.

Try this Insightful Leader Quiz to assess your fundamental insight skills.

⧠      You understand the need to both think and feel at work.

⧠      You know your values.

⧠      You know and manage your biases.

⧠      You know and use your natural skills effectively.

⧠      You recognize when your natural skills get in the way.

⧠      You manage your blind spots.

⧠      You appreciate the value and limitations of data.

⧠      You listen for and manage both facts and feelings with others.

⧠      You wisely use email, phone or face to face communications

⧠      You know and manage your personal brand.

⧠      You use stories and visual language to connect with an audience.

⧠      You are aware of and manage triggering events for yourself and others.

⧠      You recognize and resolve your stuck stories.

⧠      You know when to decide and when to sleep on a big decision.

How did you do?  Are you comfortable that you have deep skill in a third, a half or more?

Perhaps this quiz struck you as overly introspective and self-focused. We’re more accustomed to thinking of leadership as vision setting, providing direction, establishing tone, managing change, influencing and motivating – all of which are outwardly focused. For sure, those are results of leadership like the beautiful, intricate images inside the kaleidoscope.  But, as with the kaleidoscope, you can’t achieve good leadership without fundamental skills (like the little bits inside the kaleidoscope). It’s the fundamental skills that you swirl together to create insightful leadership.

What fundamental skills do you most need to develop to be an insightful leader? Let me know and I’ll write more about these in future blogs.



It was dark and I was in unfamiliar territory. I was aboard a friend’s boat on the Chesapeake Bay, at night, headed home, when he said, “You should drive. It will be good practice.”

“Good practice?” I thought. “Is he crazy? There are lights everywhere.” As I looked across the horizon and saw white lights, yellow lights, red lights, green lights, blinking lights, bright lights and faint lights.  “Which do I follow?” I asked him.

He said, “You’ll learn to sort out the important lights, that help you navigate to the dock, from the irrelevant ones that are a distraction.”  Wise words that also apply to you as an insightful leader.

You navigate your organization towards the future and along the way there are countless pieces of information and distractions that can take you off course – if you let them. How do you sort out the relevant from the irrelevant? Here are three tips I learned from executives I interviewed.

  • Have a clear objective. You can only navigate to your goal if you are clear on your goal. Yeah, I know…that seems obvious. And, I’m continually amazed at how often managers lack clarity on the goal. We breeze past the difficulty of finding clarity in the rush to act. Clarity immediately reduces distractions. Clarity allows you to ignore all inputs that don’t align. Without clarity, it would be like me aiming for any creek when I wanted Aberdeen Creek.To get clarity, ask yourself,
    • “What is the desired outcome?”
    • “What specifically needs to be accomplished?”
    • “What specific action do I want to occur?” Don’t settle for generalizations. Be specific

From a place of clarity, identify the key next steps. These steps help to retain clarity and focus along the way. Activities that aren’t in alignment with the steps to the objective, can be dealt with later.

  • Control the tangents. Be brutal about this. Everyone you talk to will try (maybe unintentionally and maybe intentionally) to take you off on a tangent. If you stay laser focused on the objective, you can tactfully redirect the conversation while staying aware that other issues will be dealt with later. When someone tries to divert your attention, say,
    • “That’s a good point, and we need to stay focused on the goal. We can come back to that point once we deal with this.”
    • “I appreciate you bringing this up. Let’s put this in the parking lot to address next.”
    • “I realize this is a concern of yours and we will address it, but for now, we need to stay focused on the goal for today.”

As I scanned the darkness, the horizon filled with lights. But I didn’t need the circling light of Thomas Point Lighthouse or the red and green lights of other boats. I began to train my eyes to discern the lights on the markers that indicated the way back. It went like this: Marker light…got it in my sights. Lighthouse light: it’s out of the way; I won’t run aground; no need to consider it further. Other boats: They are not in the way and not coming my way; no need to consider them further. They remain in my periphery but didn’t distract from the goal. How do you sift out the tangents, set them aside, and stay focused on the objective?

  • Check in along the way. As we motored back toward the dock, the navigational chart told me which marker should be in view next. Did it appear when and where it was supposed to? Check. We were still on course. As an insightful leader, it is wise to check your course along the way. Are you still focused on the objective? Are you still taking the steps you identified or have you succumbed to a tangent? Check in along the way and make course corrections as needed.

You, as an insightful leader, are the keeper of focus. In addition to reaching your goal efficiently, your staff will feel more secure and calm because of your clear-headed focus.

Photo Copyright : James Kirkikis



We left the dock at 5 am, bundled against the cold, the boat loaded with food, drinks, snacks for us and lures for the fish. It was opening day of Rockfish season. I know nothing about Rockfish, but I was with an experienced team who have fished together for twenty years. Their preparation was extensive and exhaustive. The week before they organized lines, white and chartreuse lures, weights coordinated to each line so that lures trailed the boat at varying depths and distances. The team planned it all in advance  ̶  thoughtful & intentional. Knowledge of Rockfish patterns determined the trolling location which was 90 minutes away at top speed. We were well organized, well planned, and well prepared…and we caught no fish.

Have you ever been fully prepared; thought of everything and were disappointed that it (the project, the meeting, the conversation) didn’t turn out as planned? Insightful leaders may be disappointed but they start asking questions.

  1. What mid-course correction can be made?

At the first inkling that the plan isn’t working out, insightful leaders look for ways to adjust. Since much of any work project is about making an emotional connection, what clues can you pick up from the reaction of the client, boss or audience? Notice their mood and receptivity. Do you need to ask more questions, reorient the project direction, be more or less aggressive, or make a change to the project team? Mid-course corrections could be in timing, staffing, approach, product/service shift, scale or more. Maybe a tweak will get you back on track.

Our accomplished team quickly realized that the fish were scarce. They adjusted the lines, cleaned jellyfish from the lures and changed course. All were good mid-course corrections and they didn’t work. Time for the next step.

  1. What are others experiencing?

Is it just you or are others experiencing problems? Your next steps are colored by the answer.  Are you able to ask questions of others in your office with similar projects or clients? Competitors may offer clues, too. When you observe their behaviors, do you notice them shifting strategy, tactics or customers? Are there partners or even competitors with whom you can safely make inquiries? Your intention is to determine if your work is an isolated situation or part of a bigger trend.

As we trolled the quiet waters, we observed the charter fishing boats.  Many were in the same area we were. We took comfort in that, except the radio was missing the usual chatter of excited fishermen. Within hours, the charters started looking for fish elsewhere. We were part of a tournament. Friendly competitors texted back and forth lamenting the lack of fish.  It wasn’t just us.

  1. What’s the bigger picture?

An insightful leader is always attentive for indicators of a big picture shift. In a time of big data, there are an increasing array of information sources to help spot a shift. Sometimes, the gnawing in the gut is also a good indicator. When you look at all the information you gathered, do you see a shift in client expectations, a change in client demographics or psychographics? Are there new technologies that bring new business opportunities and disrupt existing ones? Is this a one-time problem or a systemic trend? You need to know the difference.

The water was still too cold. That was the consensus from our team. The fish had not yet left the rivers. The question remains, is this a one-time event or an indicator of climate change? One is a blip, the other would make opening day fishing more speculative.

As any leader can attest: It’s essential to have a plan and it’s equally essential to be able to change the plan. Use these questions whenever your best-laid plans don’t pan out.

Are there other key questions you use when plans change?



Is your leadership falling victim to the villain? “What villain?” you say. It’s a dastardly villain that limits your leadership potential and short-circuits your effectiveness. Particularly in technical fields, we’ve been trained to go along with the villain. Here’s how the villain shows up.

Technically competent people move into management where they face new challenges – challenges with people.  They become perplexed by personality conflicts; stymied by office politics, mystified by seemingly illogical decisions, and confused why their logical points don’t carry the day. As a result, they become marginally effective and moderately inspiring as managers. Sound familiar?

But rather than learn how to work with the people issues and their feelings, they vilify feelings. I had a senior leader say, “Why can’t they leave their feelings at home and just do their job?” A CEO said, “There’s no place for feelings at work.” In both cases, they believe that “feeling” is the villain.  They’re wrong.

The real, dastardly villain is the belief that feeling should be barred from the office. It’s an outmoded perception that didn’t work before and it won’t ever work because it goes against our humanness. It attempts to make people into robots. And, it’s derailing your leadership potential.

You can, of course, hold onto the old belief system. It will continue to leave you frustrated, stressed, mystified and of average effectiveness. Yes, people will work for you but only for a paycheck. Their creativity, commitment and passion will be left behind. They will feel as though they are “just a number.” They won’t think twice about leaving.

If, on the other hand, you want to have deeper understanding of the workplace, feel less stress and frustration, be more effective, feel confident in your skills with staff, get more done and stand out from the crowd, join the movement to be a new brand of leader – an insightful leader.

It’s your choice. The only thing at stake is your future success as a leader. This is not an easy journey because it requires courage –courage to:

  • Break old mindsets;
  • Develop new skills that harness the power of both thinking and feeling; and
  • Unapologetically bring your humanness to work.

You will believe that you are more than just the data, and so are they. You will be part of a bigger movement.

If you’re interested, here’s your next step. Start replacing the outdated, villainous mindset with skill. Rather than be perplexed by personality conflicts, understand the conflict using neuroscience. Instead of being stymied by office politics, learn more about the interests of those in charge. Don’t be mystified by illogical decisions; rather understand the forces beyond the data that sway decision-making.

For now, just stop pretending that feelings can magically be shut off at the office door. Shift your thinking and notice when people exhibit a feeling about a project, program or person. It may be positive motivation, excitement or enthusiasm, or it may be disgust, anger and annoyance.  Either way, notice that we respond with feeling ALL THE TIME. It’s the way our brains are built.

Let’s not be afraid of feelings at work; let’s leverage them for the wisdom they hold and the humanness they bring. Because your staff, clients, bosses and partners are…guess what…humans.

Want to be a part of the new brand of leadership? If so, click here  YES! I WANT TO BE AN INSIGHTFUL LEADER

If you want to start your journey toward insightful leadership, contact Shelley now. CONTACT SHELLEY



Data-driven decision-making. Data analytics. Data mining. Data sounds so logical, rational and objective. But is it? Don’t misunderstand, as an engineer, I love data! And, as a leader, I learned that data alone is not enough. Even data is subject to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency of the brain to latch onto information that is in alignment with its expectations. Let me share an example.

I grSee Beyond the Data PPTew up in Smithville, Texas, a small ranching town in central Texas. My dad was the school band director for all kids from the 5th through 12th grades. Consequently, my sister and I grew up with music in the house. We sat in our yellow bean bag chair and watched PBS as he pointed out oboes, violas, tympani and bassoons. Fast-forward to my college years. I was home for the summer hanging out with friends at the barbeque cookoff. We stood outside the VFW hall under the live oak trees. In a cloud of dust, my little sister, Alison, stormed over dragging her friend, Jim, along. She positioned Jim in front of me and announced that I had to resolve their bet. As I stared at Jim in his boots, jeans, belt with the big belt buckle, tee-shirt and camo ball cap, Alison asked, “What does his ball cap say?” Printed across the camo background was Bass Tournament. Without hesitation I said, “Bass (as in an upright stringed bass) Tournament.” This was, of course, the correct answer as far as she was concerned, and she cheered my answer as she apparently won the bet.

Now…let’s rewind and consider the “data.” As charming as Smithville is, it is a small farming/ranching town of 3,000. There were not any string bass players. A camo ball cap isn’t what I imagine most bass players wearing. Finally, I remember stumbling over the word, “tournament.” I played in concerts and auditions but never a “tournament.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, my brain assembled the data and still came up with the type of “bass” I expected in my world. That’s confirmation bias.

You do the same with data every day. Even with data analytics, your brain sees what it wants to see, and it gives more credence to data that is in alignment with its expectations. It’s not a weakness, it’s inherent in the design of your brain. Knowing this, what’s an insightful leader to do? They ask insightful questions to see beyond the data lake.
Here are a few example questions that may prompt you to consider the insightful questions you can ask. These questions will push you past confirmation bias and aid you in recognizing your tendency to skew data to meet your expectations.

• Am I seeing only the data I want to see? Your natural tendency is to notice and give more weight to data that you expect, more so than unusual data.
• Is there other data that shows a different perspective? You may need a different analysis of the data, request data from a different source, or simply shift your perspective to force a new interpretation of the data.
• Does backward-looking data support forward-looking questions? If your industry or organization is in a period of change, historic data is just that – historic. Will historic data support decisions for a future that is fundamentally different?
• What trends are showing up at the fringe of the data? Emerging ideas and trends don’t show up in the middle of the bell curve, they happen gradually at the fringe of the data.

These trends emerge as the outliers, the slow drift in data, or the feel that something is shifting.

Don’t allow confirmation bias to rob you of the insight that data provides. What insightful questions can you ask that pushes you to see beyond the surface level of the data? It could make all the difference in your decision-making.



The night was warm as we stood looking over the Annapolis harbor at the gathered crowd. It was a perfect evening for (are you ready?) tango. Yes, tango. Argentine tango, to be specific. The bricks of the Annapolis City Dock were covered by a smooth dance floor and a small band played tango music. If you are not a dancer, Argentine tango is not like a typical ballroom tango. Ballroom-style tango has specific steps. Argentine tango does not. It is all improvisational. The men learn to lead by shifting their bodies. Women learn to sense and follow their lead.  As we watched, the men were steady and (relatively) straightforward with their steps while the women twisted, turned, and flicked their feet with grace and style. They represented a subtle communication between leader and follower that resulted in beauty and art.

When I think about being an insightful leader, there are three lessons from tango.  The tango leads provided:

  1. Direction. The leader provides the forward direction. Will he steer his partner slightly right, slightly left or straight ahead? He watches other couples and navigate between and around them. He adjusts their rate of progress to account for others. It’s the same for leaders in an organization. You, too, provide direction and navigate employees, staff and projects around obstacles. In your case, obstacles may be political, technical, financial or personnel. It’s your job to watch the surroundings, notice openings and deftly steer the organization forward as though you are dancing together.
  2. Framework. The tango lead held his frame. He provided a firm, physical frame that gave his partner the boundaries for her dance. Within his arms and the space around his steps, he contained the space of the dance. A leader does the same. You provide the organizational framework within which staff perform and work happens. In this case, your frame work may be the organizational culture, a way of doing business, the boundaries of acceptable business practices or acceptable behaviors at work.
  3. Flexibility. Perhaps the most striking part of the tango was the flexibility afforded to the woman dancer. Our tango lead provided direction and a framework that allowed her to improvise. Steps, kicks, flourishes, twists and turns. She was the show. He gave her the space to explore her creativity and develop beauty. Too often, this element of leadership is missing. Sometimes, we as leaders create a framework that’s too tight. It confines creativity in the workplace. Instead, insightful leaders create space like the tango. There’s an openness to new ideas, new processes and procedures. Staff are encouraged to develop their creativity and show off their highest skills. The creativity of the staff can be the showpiece under a wise leader.

Because of the skill of the tango leader, the woman improvised, added her unique style and created a work of art while moving forward within the framework. How well is your organization dancing under your leadership? Maybe it’s time for a tango lesson!

Copyright: timurpix / 123RF Stock Photo



It was a beautiful fall day in Keystone, Colorado. The aspen were gold and the sun highlighted the crevasses in the mountains that guarded the lake. It was a perfect time to rent a kayak and paddle around under the blue sky. My friend is an experienced kayaker, the sort of person who has all of the equipment and regularly goes kayaking. Using a trailer to take all of this gear around with you can be difficult to find apparently, that’s why finding yourself a good trailer that has room for everything is so important. Looking at reviews, such as https://bestkayaks.reviews/best-kayak-trailers-reviews for example, before purchasing your trailer is always a good option to see what other people think. However, I am not experienced in kayaking. But…how hard can it be? It’s a kayak. I mean, if you’re not experienced like me, maybe you should read some kayaking tips on campingfunzone.com to prepare yourself. Even if it is ‘just a kayak’, there’s got to be some level of skill to it!

Truthfully, it wasn’t hard to paddle around. It was just difficult to get to a specific point on the lake – just as it can be difficult to reach the goal that you set in your organization. Here are three points gleaned from paddling on a Colorado lake that can help you reach your organizational goals.

  1. Set a clear goal. “Let’s paddle to that grove of trees on the point,” my friend said. I replied, “Which grove of trees on which point?” It took discussion and lots of pointing to clarify which grove of trees on which point of land. It’s the same in your organization. The goal may seem crystal clear to you. It’s unlikely to be that clear to others. Talk about the goal with your staff and team. Engage them in discussion. What behavior will you all see when the goal is achieved? What specific outcome will be realized and how will you know? This is the only way to ensure that everyone is working toward the same end.
  2. Adjust constantly. Off we went toward our grove of trees. But it wasn’t that easy. We negotiated how we would paddle together without knocking each other’s paddle. Plus, the light breeze blew the kayak away from the point of land. We were constantly compensating for the breeze and an occasional boat wake. Similarly, how will your team work together and not get in each other’s way? It’s not that easy. Personality conflicts, incomplete communication and busy schedules get in the way of coordinated work. I’ve seen it first hand in my organization and in those organizations with whom I work. Busy staff don’t talk to co-workers – even briefly – to discover that they are doing the same work or that they are working at cross-purposes. It takes constant communication to make course corrections. In my office, each project had a detailed road map to guide the work. Even with the road map, it was essential that we read the “breeze” in the organization and adjust. As your work progresses, what do you know today that you didn’t know when you started? What course corrections are called for? Become an observer of the staff and their communication styles. Who is working well together and who continues to paddle at cross-purposes? An adjustment in staff roles can better align natural communication styles for more productive work.
  3. Anticipate. As we paddled, it looked like we were on track – heading straight for the point – but with one extra paddle stroke, we’d gone too far. I didn’t anticipate the momentum of the kayak and adjust my paddling in time. It took more time and effort to reach the point. Are you reading the situation and anticipating the next steps? Every office has momentum – work flows that are set in motion, processes that are half completed. You must anticipate where the momentum takes you and adjust in advance before the need is obvious. This is the work of the insightful leader. Are you a keen observer of the work flow, the patterns in the office and the external influences? It’s only then that you can anticipate the trajectory and course correct before others realize it’s needed.

We made it to the point – eventually. I learned that I have a lot to learn about kayaking. On the surface, it looks easy, but the art of kayaking takes skill and intentional thought. Providing wise leadership is the same. Data isn’t enough. You must be an astute observer of the people and work to stay on course.

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo



Whether your technical expertise is in engineering (like mine), law, finance, technology or science, we technical folks don’t have good reputations as managers.  When a technically accomplished person is promoted into management, suddenly the old skills that made us successful are not as relevant. 

I’ve seen technically talented managers become perplexed by people issues, stymied by office politics and mystified by seemingly illogical decisions made by “management”. You don’t have to be perplexed, stymied or mystified. Here are the top ten skills that I learned the hard way when I became a manager. Now, you can eliminate the frustration by learning from my mistakes so that your management competence matches your technical competence.  

  1. Know your staff. Take the time to get to know each of your staff individually. 
  • What’s their background? 
  • What are they passionate about in their work and life?  
  • What are the skills that they love to use? 
  • What type of work makes them feel fulfilled? 
  • What is something that you have in common? 
  • What do they need from you to be successful? 

     2. Know your skills and preferences. If you haven’t already, now is the time to become self-aware. You need to see yourself clearly and honestly. 

  • What are your strengths – those behaviors that you do so easily that you didn’t realize it was special?
  • How do those characteristics support you at work? When do you overdo them at work? 
  • What are your communication style preferences? How do you respond to those who communicate similarly to you? How do you respond to those who communicate differently from you? 
  • What are the stories in your life that color your perceptions? 
  • What are the filters through which you see the world? 
  • How do you prefer to work? When will you have that in your management role and when will you not? 
  • What people and situations trigger you and why? 
  • Are you coachable? 

      3. Know your boss. You need to know the motivations, stresses, and strains that your boss is under. 

  • What makes your boss tick? What does she care about? 
  • What’s his career and personal background? 
  • What’s his pet project? 
  • What frustrates her? 
  • What is his biggest time waster? 
  • What keeps her up at night? How can you help alleviate some of that stress?

     4. Know the influencers. Regardless of position, there are people inside and outside the organization who count.

  • Who are the power players who wield influence? Whose opinion carries weight in the office and with your boss?
  • What can you learn about their background, interests, headaches, and passions?
  • Who are the deep thinkers who everyone respects? What do they think? What are they worried about?
  • Where is an area of commonality that allows you to connect with them?
  • How can they become your ally?

5. Know the factors other than the data that are influencing organizational trajectory. Organizations are impacted by factors that can’t be measured.

  • Are there political factors that will impact your organization? If so, what are they? 
  • What are the societal trends that you should attend to? Global trends? 
  • Are there relationships outside the organization that impact its success? 
  • What can you do regularly to remain attentive to these forces?

6. Know the person who can get things done in the office. There is someone in the office who is a skilled networker and sleuth.  She knows everyone! This person has informal power and knows where the bodies are buried. Everyone probably owes him a favor. She will know about birthdays, anniversaries, family illnesses, staff worries, hopes and fears.  Because of these connections, he will have an uncanny way of getting things done. 

  • Who is it? Find out and make friends.

7. Know a broad range of information sources. We all have a natural inclination to seek information from sources that are comfortable and familiar. 

  • Where are you getting your information? Is it from people you know and trust? The people who are like you? 
  • Are you reaching outside your comfortable circle to those with different backgrounds and demographics? 
  • Are you seeking input from the people who make you uncomfortable or who are likely to disagree? 
  • Do you need to expand to a bigger reach?

8. Know how to challenge your initial impressions. It is easy to make and hold initial impressions but there is usually more to the story than that. Our mental shortcuts – the impressions we form – can be heavily influenced by biases of all sorts. 

  • What immediate impressions have you formed about the people on your staff and the people you will work with? Now, challenge those impressions. 
  • Ask yourself why you immediately like some people but not others. Why are you impressed or not? You will likely discover that you naturally connect with people who are like you in some way such as a common background, work style, or value systems 
  • Are you listening more to them and discounting input from those with whom you don’t naturally connect? 
  • Are you allowing this human tendency to skew your perceptions and decisions? 
  • How can you challenge yourself to look beyond initial impressions of people? 

9. Know your vision for the organization. As a leader and manager, you need a vision that charts a clear course for your organization. This creates confidence and certainty for the staff. 

  • Do you have enough information to have a vision? 
  • What are the trends? 
  • What data can you collect? 
  • What is your initial impression of the data? Now, what are the different interpretations of the same data? 
  • What other intangible factors need to be considered? 
  • Combine the data with the intangibles. What’s the trajectory for the organization and the factors you need to watch?

10. Know your leadership philosophy. Like having a vision for the organization, your leadership philosophy guides decisions about the investment of time, money and creation of the office culture. You need clarity about your leadership beliefs.

  • What do you believe about leadership and do you behave in accordance with your belief? 
  • Do you believe in transparency? 
  • Are you willing to allow others to see that you don’t know everything? 
  • Do you trust your staff? Do they trust you? 
  • How much control are you willing to relinquish? 
  • How much do you believe in coaching and staff development? Do you believe in staff development enough to invest time and money? 
  • How do you invest in your leadership growth?

If you found this helpful, there is a ten-part, interactive webinar series based on these skills. Click here for more information and to register. Or, email kerry@shelleyrow.com for details. 

Contact Shelley Row at the Insightful Leadership Institute to assist you and your staff to grow your skills as an insightful leader.

 

Hard-to-work-with, passive-aggressive, disagreeable, arrogant, unresponsive, unmotivated, angry. Know anyone like that?

Rational, levelheaded, thoughtful, curious, respectful, friendly, easy-to-get-along-with, agreeable. You probably know people like this, too.

Whether negative or positive, we throw labels onto people until they stick. Those labels are a product of our judgement and are heavily influenced by our biases and filters. Without awareness of the potential for bias, you can under or over-estimate a person’s skills, discount their input, fail to take advantage of their knowledge or only hear ideas from those with whom you agree. All of this artificially narrows your viewpoint, restricts options and skews your decisions. On the other hand, an insightful leader knows to recognize his own biases and intentionally see beyond them. She knows to challenge her own limited viewpoints to intentionally gather the information that differs from her own opinion…and then listen to it.

For example, when I ran a research program for the federal government, we created active research programs of which I was proud. And then, we got a new boss. Within a few short discussions with him, I labeled him, “arrogant, difficult, and a jerk.” I’m sure he labeled me something like, “bureaucratic, wimpy, and weak.” Because I labeled him as “difficult,” I avoided talking to him, asking his opinion or working with him, as much as possible. He didn’t relish working with me either. In our meetings, he became frustrated and yelled his orders. My bias was so strong that projects he started, I discontinued when he left. Similarly, he disliked our programs and tried to stop the ongoing work. Sadly, neither he nor I could see beyond our biases to the value we each offered. The result – bad decision-making. He couldn’t the value in our projects and I couldn’t accept his good ideas (and he had good ideas). The big loser was the program of research that would have been stronger if we saw past our biases. To keep this from happening to you, you must first realize that, from a neuroscience perspective, the deck is stacked against you. You are designed to gravitate and believe those people you like.

You see, your brain takes shortcuts to make things easy for it. Those shortcuts create natural biases. It’s easier for your brain to talk to people for whom you feel a connection. Maybe they think like you, have a similar background, or you have something in common. Similarly, it’s easier for your brain to avoid those for whom you do not have an affinity. Perhaps they have different ideas, work processes, values or backgrounds.  Another brain shortcut is to unconsciously hear and give more credence to information that supports your existing viewpoint. When presented with a wide range of information, your brain will naturally gravitate to the information that is most like your existing perspective. Basically, it’s easy to see a situation as you always have but you must work harder to force your brain to be flexible to new ideas coming from different people.

You simply can’t afford to let your biases be in control of your decision-making and skew your perceptions. Here are five steps to challenge your existing impressions so that you create insightful decisions.

  1. Recognize the labels you’ve created. Recognize the labels that you have imposed onto others and that may hold back your receptivity to some people and overly rely on other people.
    • What impressions have you formed about the people you work with?
    • Who are your “good guys” and who are the “bad guys?”
  2. Challenge those impressions. Notice your natural preference for some and not others. Now, do the hard work of challenging your own impressions so that you create more balanced input.
    • Are you talking only to people with whom you’re comfortable?
    • Are you asking for input from those most likely to agree with you?
    • Are you avoiding those who rub you the wrong way?
    • Are you discounting (or not asking) opinions from those for whom you find tedious, annoying or difficult?
  3. Question your experience. Your brain easily gravitates to answers based on your experience. But, in a changing world, the past may not be prologue. Past experience may be of limited value.
    • Does the future resemble the past?
    • Do the old answers pertain to new questions?
    • Your experience may provide valuable input but are you sure?
    • Are you over-relying on experience from the past when the past may not be a reliable predictor of the future?
  4. Broaden your input. To change the impact of bias in your decision-making, intentionally identify a broad range of people from whom to seek input. Balance input from those likely to share your views with those likely to have a contrarian perspective. Talk to a range of people who are different from you. I once interviewed the head of the engineering department for a major university who was also a former astronaut. He explained that when faced with a difficult decision, he intentionally sought the opinions of women peers. Because, he noted, they approach problem-solving differently. He felt that he benefited from their shift in perspective. You can do the same if you intentionally challenge your biases.
    • Are you talking to a wide range of people including those with whom you easily relate and those you don’t?
    • Is the input you receive balanced between expected and surprising?
  5. Truly listen. Even when you make an effort to talk to a wide range of people, the natural inclination of your brain is to hear, remember and give more validity to opinions, facts and data that support your existing It takes more effort for your brain to internalize different perspectives.
    • Are you only hearing the input that supports your viewpoint?
    • Are you discounting the information that is contrary to your current beliefs?
    • Are you spending the extra time and energy to really listen and absorb other ideas?

How can you be more insightful about the impacts of your biases? What steps will you take to accommodate for your biases so that you make more robust decisions? Try these five steps to overcome your natural biases. You’ll take full advantage of many perspectives so that your viewpoint broads and you make more insightful decisions.

Share your stories about how you challenge your impressions and overcome biases with Shelley here.



Whether your technical expertise is in engineering (like mine), law, finance, technology or science, we technical folks don’t have good reputations as managers.  When a technically accomplished person is promoted into management, suddenly the old skills that made us successful are not as relevant. It’s a whole new ball game and a whole new set of skills. As we always said: Technical skills are the easy part. People skills are the hard part.

 

Technically-talented managers can become perplexed by people issues, stymied by office politics and mystified by seemingly illogical decisions made by “management”. You don’t have to be perplexed, stymied or mystified if you have all the information you need.

Here are 10 things that every technical person should know when they become a manager and leader.

  1. Know your staff
  2. Know you
  3. Know your boss
  4. Know the influencers
  5. Know the factors other than the data that are influencing organizational trajectory
  6. Know the person who can get things done in the office
  7. Know a broad range of information sources
  8. Know how to challenge your initial impressions
  9. Know your vision for the organization
  10. Know your leadership philosophy

To further develop your knowledge in these ten areas, click here, to receive questions to prompt your learning.

Contact Shelley Row to assist you and your staff to grow your skills as an insightful leader.