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How Leaders Can Avoid Lazy Thinking

Our brains are hardwired to prefer information that aligns with what we already know and think.

New ideas, innovation, and creativity are things we all want to have in our teams, organizations, and leaders.

However, in reality, our brains are hardwired to prefer information that aligns with what we already know and think.

It’s much easier to talk about that which you know already than that which you don’t.

Introducing a new idea or something that goes against the status quo in the group is risky.

When you present something that is unknown, unseen, and unproven, you can make people psychologically uncomfortable; it forces them to think critically and decide whether or not they want to change (and people hate to change).

In addition to our brain’s strong tendency to reject novel information, when we are exposed to fresh, new ideas we tend to judge them based on the confidence, charisma, and speaking ability of the person sharing them.

It’s comforting to listen to someone who thinks like us, sounds like us, and looks like us.

Research has shown that those who take the floor with ease and talk confidently are perceived as knowledgeable when it might be the introvert in the room who possesses the information that’s needed.

University of Utah management professor Bryan Bonner coined the phrase “proxies of expertise:

when our brains take shortcuts by focusing on the most outspoken or noticeable person in the room – rather than the person who logically has the most expertise on the topic at hand.

This is potentially dangerous when we need to make critical decisions because our brains love to take shortcuts.

As a leader, you can take steps to make yourself and your team less likely to use the automatic, biased, shortcut thinking style our brains can use by default. This shortcut mode was named “System 1” thinking by psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

“The operations of System 1 are fast, effortless, associative, and often emotionally charged; they’re also governed by habit, so they’re difficult either to modify or to control.” -Daniel Kahneman

When we don’t pause to consider alternate points of view, when we react with emotion, when we’re tired or feeling lazy, when we feel drawn to that which we’ve seen or heard before – this is all System 1 thinking.

Of course, System 1 thinking is an effective way for our brains to work in a lot of situations like when we drive the correct route home from work without really thinking about it, or when we immediately move our hand from a hot stove without conscious effort.

However, in the business world, we usually want to be critical, deliberate, and goal-focused. Daniel Kahneman calls that kind of thinking “System 2” thinking.

System 2 thinking is the more deliberate, careful, and considered. It is the thinking that counteracts our biases, knee jerk reactions, and emotional reasoning. It is our ability to problem solve, analyze information, evaluate options, and make decisions.

As a leader, you want to use your System 2 thinking whenever you are making decisions, leading meetings, or having team conversations. You also want to cultivate System 2 thinking in your team to reduce the group’s natural tendency to avoid new, risky information.

Cultivate an environment where people feel comfortable taking the risk to bring new ideas to the table or speak up against the status quo. Keeping things the same is easy and takes less effort, but it doesn’t lead to excellence, success, or profit.

Prevent lazy thinking with these following leadership practices:

1. Establish Group Diversity – Uniformity tends to breed lackluster results. Groups thrive when opinions from different genders, age groups, and ethnicities are welcome.

2. Define Expectations – Knowing what’s expected of a group can help the group stay on track. Expectations support accountability as well, since the group members can’t deny they didn’t know what the goal was.

3. Emphasize Collective Awareness – Understanding common group biases helps to keep them at bay. The group should know their weaknesses and how to spot them.

4. Stress Freedom of Thought – Individuals can do their own research and thinking before meeting with the group. Leaders should stress that all ideas are welcome, no matter how far out or strange they might seem. They should also make sure all ideas are heard so that those who don’t naturally speak up are given the floor.

5. Insist on Information Sharing – It’s imperative that everyone in a group lists all of the information in their possession that relates to an issue. It’s the only way to get the best results.

6. Promote Innovation – A good leader stimulates people to climb over the mental fence that can keep a group from devising, openly discussing, and adopting new ideas and solutions.

All of the smaller, day-to-day situations where we err on the side of caution and adhere to the status quo can seem harmless, but these small choices insidiously build towards an atmosphere in an organization that lacks innovation and creativity.

Make challenging the status quo an ongoing practice by keeping curiosity alive!

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