Alien

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

Latest "Decision-Making" Posts

There were thirteen of us and an unknown number of them. We, leaders of a technology company, were standing in a dark field surrounded by the rugged mountains of Sedona. We held night vision goggles and laser pointers that reached ten miles. They were the inhabitants of the UFOs for which we were searching. Yes, we were on a UFO-watching tour. Never did I or any of us expect to be searching for UFOs. It definitely challenged our assumptions.

You may not have UFOs in your office, but insightful leaders know the importance of challenging assumptions. First, let’s do a reality check.  You must make assumptions. Assumptions are your brain’s shortcuts that help it manage the number of decisions you make in a day. However, you must also recognize when assumptions constrict your choices and constrain innovation.

In my experience, most people are unaware of their assumptions and the limitations assumptions create. Foster awareness by shining a light on assumptions. When people realize they made an assumption it either 1) opens their eyes to new opportunities or 2) allows the assumption to be revisited and updated. Either way, innovation is facilitated.

As an insightful leader train yourself to listen for assumptions. They may be the culprit during an impasse or a roadblock. Here are a few assumptions that get in the way of progress.

Assume the future is like the past. In rapidly changing environments, assumptions about markets, people, customers, and partners may no longer be valid. For example, in my field of transportation, we often assume that everyone wants to drive their personal car, but trends show fewer driver’s licenses and more use of other transportation options. What is changing in your industry that requires you to challenge long-held assumptions?

Assume that resources are finite. In my early days as a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we executed work with only our staff.  The staff asserted that the update to a key manual would take years. “What assumptions go into that estimate?” we asked. They assumed that the work was done only with the current staff.  Once we surfaced the assumption we opened new avenues for execution (and hired consultant support).  What assumptions are your staff making that limit their options for execution?

Assume that past decisions are still relevant. We cling to old decisions sometimes to our detriment. I work with a leader who is reluctant to share information with staff. When a new leader took over, that reluctance continued until the assumption was challenged. With new leadership, say, “It sounds like that previous decision is limiting our options and we assume that it can’t be changed. What would it take to reevaluate the original decision?”

Assume that it can’t be done or it’s too hard. As a leader in government, I was often told that it was too hard to fire underperforming staff. But when we examined that assumption we learned that, while not easy, it was certainly doable. What does your staff believe is too hard and what assumptions are in play?

Assume that past impressions are relevant today. “We know what our client wants.” Are you sure? Clients, bosses, and boards change and with that change comes new attitudes.  Ask, “Let’s examine the assumptions. When was the last time we studied client preferences?” Or, “We have a new board now, let’s not assume that they have the same goals as the previous board.”

None of us expected to be searching for UFOs but there we stood, scanning the night sky looking for something none of us believed in. We were forced to confront our assumptions particularly when we saw UFOs! We traced the UFOs with our lasers as they zig-zagged across the night sky. We pointed excitedly at bright white lights on inaccessible mountain tops that appeared, brightened and dimmed, disappeared and reappeared.  We have no explanation, nor do we have our previous assumptions.

What assumptions hold you back?

Copyright: realillusion / 123RF Stock Photo
 

over thinkingI was intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.

 

Have you ever found something that you like and just stick with it? Maybe it’s your favorite restaurant, favorite running shoe, favorite hand lotion or…in this case, your favorite clam chowder. Recently, we visited friends in Florida and a discussion ensued about the best clam chowder. The next day, we had a side-by-side taste test with two clam chowders. There was the old favorite and a new un-tried contender. I’ll leave you in suspense about the winner as we ponder the relevance to insightful leadership.

At work, we also have our favorites– a favorite process, a favorite go-to staff person who always gets the job done, a favorite approach to problem solving. They are our favorites for a reason – they worked well in the past, we are familiar with them, they don’t require excessive thought, or they are reliable. Like the favorite clam chowder – we know what we’re getting. We get what we’ve always gotten, and the brain likes it that way. It takes less energy for the brain to do what it’s always done.

But, you lead in a fast-moving environment where little is stable. Can you afford to settle for the standby, comfortable solutions? What if there’s a new way and you didn’t discover it? How do you entice people to look beyond their favorites and uncover the creative approach? Here are two simple questions that help push you and others to look beyond the obvious.

Ask, “What if we can’t do it this way – what’s another way?” Let’s say you’re working on a sensitive project and all recommendations take the tried-and-true approach. Push yourself and your team out of the comfort zone by posing this question. “Let’s pretend that our regular approach isn’t available to us. What else can we do?” With that question, you force the discussion to become more creative immediately. When you take the favored approach out of contention and require consideration of other options, you force the brain to dig in and do the hard work of real thinking. Expect to meet resistance. Don’t settle for the default option. Continue to take options off the table to force thinking at a deeper level.

Ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” Listen carefully to the responses. Perhaps you hear, “That’s what we did the last time,” or “It worked for us before,” or “It’s the standard approach.” All responses are of the same ilk…they are reliant on the default behavior. Don’t stop probing until you get to the bottom line goal.  Take the clam chowder example. Why do we always choose this particular clam chowder? The answers could be: It’s at the restaurant on the way home from work; it has a top reputation; we’ve been eating it for years. Good to know but the objective was not to find the most convenient clam chowder with the best reputation. When you uncover the reason for selecting the tried and true, it can open the door to other choices and reveal options to explore.

As for our clam chowder taste test…the old standby won in a landslide. That could happen to you, too. If it does, don’t be lulled into thinking there’s no reason to probe in the future. Change is constant and those who keep up the questions and see beyond the obvious will be the first to find the next favorite thing.

Copyright: cokemomo / 123RF Stock Photo

pavement markersIt happened just the other day. I was in Florida driving back from a training program just as the sun was getting low in the sky. Because I’m a transportation engineer I see things on the road that you may not. Glancing in my rear-view mirror, I saw them. The raised, reflective pavement markers. Have you ever noticed them?  They are small, raised bumps between the white dashes and they reflect white light at night with your headlights. But, if you happen to travel the wrong way on the road, they reflect red. You see a continuous line of red twinkling dots to tell you that you need to go the other way.

As the red dots sparkled in the evening sun, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were red twinkling dots to tell us we’re going the wrong way as leaders?” On second thought, perhaps there are.

The nagging feeling that gnaws in your gut. You know that feeling – it tells you that something’s not sitting right. Ignore that feeling at your peril. It’s your inner red twinkling dots trying to get your attention. Both my personal experience and interviews with executives say one consistent thing about the nagging feeling – pay attention. There’s something in your brain that’s trying to get through. Ask questions; probe your discomfort; dig in to understand why the tell-tale feeling has kicked in.  From a neuroscience perspective, the nagging feeling is something from your experience that’s trying to get your attention. Call it intuition or gut feel, but, whatever you call it, it has validity and deserves your attention. In fact, a friend who is an executive director of a trade association told me that she gages the wisdom of her decisions based on the nagging feeling. “The nagging feeling goes away when you make the right decision,” she says. It’s your internal warning system … if you pay attention to it.

Trusted colleagues who say, “You might want to think about that again.” The emphasis here is on “trusted.”  When someone I respect says, “uhhhh….you might reconsider that before you decide,” I’ve learned to reconsider before I decide. There’s only so much that you can see from your vantage point. Others may have a clearer perspective and see consequences and implications that you can’t.  They are your own personal red, twinkling dots. In fact, they can be so effective you should proactively cultivate them. As an important decision approaches, seek counsel from the wise people in your world. What perspective can they offer that you wouldn’t otherwise see?

What other red twinkling dots have you noticed that cause you to pause and take note before deciding? Share your experiences with me and the other readers so that we don’t make a wrong turn.

Photo credit: 3M

escalatorThey were in front of me as I approached the hotel’s escalator to head down to the first floor.  A little, brown-headed boy about 2 years scurried to the escalator holding his dad’s hand. His dad held firm to his hand as he flew him inches off the ground to land squarely on the escalator step. The little boy jumped and jiggled as though the escalator an amusement park ride. Clearly, this is the fun moment the little boy was anticipating.  As they approached the bottom, the boy couldn’t wait any longer. He leaned forward ready for take-off.  His father calmly said, “No. Not yet….wait for it.”

One of my most requested programs is about avoiding over-thinking. I hear from clients, “There is too much wasted time on over-thinking. The decision needs to be made now!” We add pressure by telling ourselves: I should decide, I need to decide, I’ve got to decide. But what about the decisions that need to wait? How does an insightful leader know when to “wait for it?”

The future is too hazy. During a disruptive time, the future can evolve in many different directions. It’s like seeing into a fog. The fog can lift just a bit – enough to see the next step – by waiting. But until the future begins to clear, deciding “NOW!” can be highly risky. It’s better to allow a little time to reveal the next best step.

There’s no coalition behind the leader. Leaders are in lonely roles. They see the future sooner and more clearly than others. If the future is too blurry for others to see, the leader may find themselves without a tribe. As that leader, you may find that building the tribe is harder than you thought. You are too far ahead and they can’t see what you see.  When that happens, “Wait for it.” Give the issue time to gel while you continue to socialize your idea with others until a coalition of like-minded people begins to coalesce.

Trying too hard. Have you ever felt like you were pushing toward a goal – pushing and pushing –  and it’s not happening? It’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole. You are trying to force a decision or an approach whose time has not yet come. The nagging feeling tells you that you’re trying too hard; the time has not yet come. Wait for it.  You’ll know the right time. In my experience, puzzle pieces begin to fall into place or something in your environment shifts. The result is it’s not so hard.

As the escalator ride came to an end, the boy, barely containing himself, waited for the precise moment when the step flattened into the floor and his father swung him over the threshold.  With glee, he scampered off not realizing the lesson he taught us: wait for it.

Have you ever found value from “waiting on it?” I’d love to hear your experience.

Photo Copyright : studiolaska  (Follow)

The party is over. The confetti clings to the floor, reluctant to be swept away. The hats and horns are conspicuous with glittered hot pinks, blues and golds. And so the new year begins.

Maybe you had a New Year’s Eve like this or maybe you sat quietly at home in front of a fireplace. Maybe you kissed at midnight or maybe you slept through it.  Either way, the new year is a natural time for reflection and goal setting.

As a leader, one of the most effective activities you can do is to set a goal for the new year– not ten goals–one goal. The value of setting a clear goal is that it keeps you focused amid the bombardment of distractions. Your challenge is to set the goal that will make the most difference and then focus on it relentlessly.

That sounds good, doesn’t it? And, frankly, it’s excellent advice. It’s just that, honestly, I’m terrible that this.  I have many goals, not one goal. Maybe you’re in the same boat. Really…what is that one big goal? It’s not constructive for me or for you to fragment our focus.  In this article, I’ll examine my own struggles and see if we can come up with a workable approach together. Okay? Here we go.

Step 1. Make a list of the goals you’d like to accomplish this year. Go ahead….make the list. What do you want to have completed this time next year? Now, step back and see what you have. My list has seven main goals, each with bullets.

Step 2. Triage. Identify the goals that have the biggest impact. What does it mean to have impact? Is it an activity that makes money, grows visibility, advances a cause, positions the organization for future growth? Those are high priority.  Now, which goals can only be executed when others are finished? Those are medium priority.

Even after triage, there may be too many high priority goals. There are for me. But, here’s the problem. You can’t effectively execute them all with high quality. Or can you?

Step 3. Gather more resources. Which goals can be tackled by others? Can you hire or delegate one or more goals?  In my case, the answer is – probably.  Identify the goals that can be associated with someone else. Note the person and the role they will play. Set a time to talk with them about the new assignment.

Step 4. Brutal prioritization. It’s time to be brutal with yourself. First, find any goals that are easy and quick. Next, think long and hard about which goal REALLY matters. Which goal, when accomplished will make a tangible difference now or for the future?  Which goal, if not accomplished, would make you feel like you missed an opportunity?

Hopefully, you whittled the list to one or two. In my case, there are two.  One is an action and the other an attitude while taking the action.  I have my focus. Have you identified that one goal that really matters?

Step 5. Be accountable. You’re not finished yet and neither am I. Set up an accountability method that maintains your focus. Tell a mentor or trusted colleague about your goal and ask that they check in monthly.  The point is to stay focused on your priority.  You’ll be lucky to make it through January without some distraction derailing your priorities. You need an accountability system to keep your eye on the goal.

Here’s my accountability system.  You.

You see, my top priority goal is to refocus my business on Insightful Leadership. I’m redoing the website and aligning all products and services to support the development and growth of insightful leaders like you.  The newsletter articles, programs, webinar series (to be launched this year –  a secondary goal) and future books will center on development of insightful leaders.  Hold me to it!

Photo Credit: Scott Betts

bootsIt was the sixth shoe store we visited in Vienna, Austria. And still no shoes.  I wanted to buy a pair of boots as my old ones from Milan, Italy, fit so well. In and out of shoe stores we went. My traveling companion had the patience of Job. I looked at combat-style boots, knee-length heeled boots, punk-rocker studded booties and everything in between. At each store, the increasingly impatient salesperson asked, “What are you looking for exactly?” To which I replied, “I’m not sure but I’ll know it when I see it.”

Have you ever worked for an I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it manager? Or are you an I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it manager? I’ve worked for this type of manager and my staff might even say that I’ve been this type of manager (although I’d like to think it was rare). Here are the pitfalls to this management style:

It’s frustrating for everyone around you. They, like the salesperson, are doing their best to assist in your quest. But no matter what they provide – a report, a product, a marketing plan, or a strategy – it’s not what you were looking for. It doesn’t take long for them to become exasperated and demotivated.

It’s a time waster. As the frustration grows, so does time. Time is spent guessing at the goal and producing a product to meet their best-guess.  While time spirals into more time, the cost also includes lost opportunity costs.  Just think about all the other work they could be doing that would result in a productive output rather than a guessing game.

You won’t know it when you see it.  Despite the belief that you’ll have an “aha” moment when you see that mysterious just-right thing, you won’t. You won’t know-it-when-you-see-it because you don’t know what you’re looking for. It’s a futile circular loop that rarely plays out well.

Everyone, including your organization, is better off if you replace I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it with clarity of vision and direction. Here are three tasks to get you started.

  1. Clarify your objective. In my case, I needed to define my shoe objective. Did I want comfy, go-to-the-grocery-store booties, sophisticated stand-on-the-stage boots, or an edgy silver-studded pair? What did I want to accomplish with the boot search? Similarly, what are you trying to accomplish with your task? Do you know? Challenge yourself to define the goal and articulate it specifically. Ask yourself, “What does success look like?” What behavior will you see; what product will be available; what service experience will be created?
  2. Do your research. Poke, prod, search, explore, ask others, and research what’s out there. Now is the time to research options. Who else is in the ecosystem? What are their products or services? What is the state of the art or state of the practice? Seek out information to give you the boundaries of what currently exists so that you have a knowledgeable frame of reference to share with others.
  3. Define the parameters. In my case, I finally narrowed the search to black booties with a low heel and below a specific price point. That helped. What are your boundaries?  Think about your task and define the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable. Communicate that dividing line clearly to reduce the frustration of those working on the task. Define the box within which your task fits to reduce the time and effort of others.

In the end, I didn’t buy shoes because no matter how many I looked at, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I didn’t know it when I saw it after all. Next time, I’ll be clearer and it will save me time and reduce the frustration of those around me.  You can do the same. Clarify your objective, do the research, and define the parameters. You, those around you and your organization will come out ahead.

 

Copyright: bushalex / 123RF Stock Photo

Head storiesYou’re in a long security line at the airport. A LONG line. A frazzled, middle-aged, perspiring, blonde woman rushes up from behind. “Excuse me! My plane is leaving! May I cut in line?” In that moment, what do you think? Perhaps some of the more gracious of us think, “Oh…poor thing. I hope she catches her flight.”  Others of us may think, “Really? Why is this my problem?” or “If she prepared better and planned ahead she wouldn’t be in this situation.” Honestly, I would probably be in the later camp.  Except that this time, the woman was me.

Two newsletter articles ago I wrote about the man who had a heart attack on the plane and probably died. I was so upset and flustered that I forgot I had a connecting flight. I realized it on the rental car shuttle in the wrong city.  To have any chance at making my connection I had to get back through the long security line. I was forced to politely ask for a favor from strangers.  Most were great. I only got a couple of exasperated looks. There was no time to explain the unusual circumstances (how often does a person have a massive heart attack on a plane?) that led to my predicament. I asked, said thank you, kept moving and ignored the looks.

At one time or another, we all created a story from circumstances and slim information. And then believe the story! The boss slings edgy comments at you in the meeting and you think, “Oh no! She’s dissatisfied with my work!” When the real situation is that she’s exhausted after landing at 1am.  Or a team member doesn’t get a deliverable in on time and you think, “NOW what are we going to do? He let us down.” But the real situation is that this team member was in the hospital emergency room all night with his kid’s asthma. The range of options is innumerable and we can’t image them all. Instead we create a story that usually includes us and believe it.

Those stories are destructive and stress inducing. It only takes a bit of perspective to put the stories in their rightful place which is to eliminate them.

  • Take in the situation. When disappointed or upset by a situation, take it in without judgment, and take a breath to slow down the mental storytelling that’s gearing up.
  • Detach you from the situation. When you hear the story beginning in your mind, remind yourself that the situation is not likely about you and that there is more going on than you know.
  • Reframe the situation. Remind yourself of the vast range of options that could be impacting this situation. Your assumptions are bound to be wrong and likely unfair. Open up to the possibilities.

I made my flight that day but only because person after person graciously allowed me through. They will never know the story of that day. And we may never know the real stories behind each situation we encounter but we can take a broader and kinder view that allows for options beyond our imagination.

 

marish / 123RF Stock Photo

DecisionsI’m intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.

 

brain wiring

You’re wired to see what you already believe. It’s a simple statement but the implications for decision-making are complex. What you already believe is built layer upon layer from your experiences which create a filter through which you see the world. Good decision-making relies on understanding how your brain’s filter colors perception and influences interpretation.

The brain is designed to be efficient and make good use of its energy.  The most energy efficient approach is for the brain to take in information around you and make it fit into your personal filter system. It may not be 100% correct, but it is efficient.  Take for example what happened to me last Christmas.

First, a word about my filter. My dad was a band director in the local high school in our small Texas town which was not a hot-bed of culture.  In our household, talk was not of cattle and farm equipment but of music.  I was the only 4th grader in town who could pick out an oboe by sight or sound.  Now fast-forward to last Christmas. I was driving past our local Salvation Army building.  Think about the Salvation Army particularly around the holidays. On this cold morning, there was a sign outside their local headquarters that read, “Bell ringers needed.”

“Wow.” I thought. “I didn’t know the Salvation Army had a bell choir! That sounds like fun.  I wonder when they meet?” I was a mile down the road before my brain began to register, “….Wait a minute. Bell ringers? Salvation Army? Oh….not a bell choir.”   My brain was wired to see what it already believed.

Now take that characteristic of the brain into decision-making.   Your brain is designed to create meaning from what it experiences based on your history. For example, if you interview someone who grew up in an environment similar to yours, your brain will naturally endow them with attributes from your experience which may not reflect their reality. You may also interview someone from a different background or culture. Your brain naturally doesn’t connect with them as easily. It may feel more effortful.

As a leader who makes tough decisions, you must be aware of and vigilant to this natural tendency. If not, you will only hire people you relate to, you can underestimate key trends that your brain doesn’t register, and you may ignore input from staff you if you don’t relate to them.

So how do you counteract your brain’s predisposition to see what you already believe.

  1. Seek out information from those with differing backgrounds. A male leader I interviewed said that he purposefully seeks input from women leaders because they “connect the dots better than men. They see things relationally where I don’t.” He forces his brain to see a situation differently. You can gather input across gender, race, and cultural differences as ways to broaden perspective. Also, talk with those who come from a different career path or different industry. This opens up new habits of thinking.
  2. Challenge your assumptions. Your brain is constantly making assumptions in order to be efficient. Get into the practice of noticing and challenging your assumptions.  This is good practice for your staff, too. Calling out assumptions forces them and you to think more deeply about the connections the brain is making about a situation. How can you make the phrase, “challenge the assumption,” a standard part of discussion?
  3. Force consideration of a different solution. When making a decision, ask yourself what would you do if your preferred approach was not available?  The preferred approach is likely aligned with your brain’s history. Take that option off the table for the sake of discussion and exploration.  Once again, you force the brain to look beyond its own filters for options that it discarded because they don’t fit the pattern.

Your brain is designed to quickly and easily match patterns and create meaning. That serves you well in many cases. In fact, we couldn’t function if we had to reevaluate every situation during the day.  However, leaders and managers need to be aware that their brain is wired to see what it already believes.  For key decisions, take the extra time, use the additional energy and force the brain to look beyond its historical boundaries. Decision-making will improve, and your brain will be broadened for the next time.