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One Behavior That Prevents Good Leadership

When it comes to our opinions, emotion trumps reasoning.

“We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” -Anais Nin

In 2009, three Ohio State University researchers used the now defunct The Colbert Report, a satirical show on Comedy Central, to investigate the subject of confirmation bias.

For those not familiar with the show, Stephen Colbert played a parody of a conservative TV political pundit. Colbert himself described him as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot.”

The researchers asked 332 participants in the study to describe Colbert’s point of view.

Those who held liberal opinions viewed him as a liberal and his show as pure satire.

Conservatives, on the other hand, saw him as a conservative pundit expressing honest conservative opinions through his satire.

In short, the participants’ own views strongly colored their perceptions of the comedian.

As humans, we have a basic need to be right.

We naturally tend to cling tightly to our beliefs and look for information that confirms our beliefs while disavowing information that contradicts them.

This can wreak havoc when we are managing other people because it can prevent us from making accurate and effective judgments and decisions.

This leadership de-railer is called:

Too Proud to See.

The too-proud-to-see syndrome involves three problem-bound behaviors:

  1. Letting yourself get so tied to an idea that you won’t let it go
  2. Refusing to heed the advice of others
  3. Relying on your past successes at the expense of weighing different patterns, options, or solutions

All three of these behaviors not only damage performance and productivity but can also undermine your credibility as a leader.

Avoiding them requires a strong dose of self-awareness.

Easier said than done! Our tendencies our hard-wired into our brains.

When it comes to our opinions, emotion trumps reasoning. A 2004 study conducted at Emory University proved just this point.

The Emory research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of fifteen hard-care Republicans and fifteen equally hardcore Democrats.

The fMRI brain scans occurred while the subjects watched clearly self-contradictory statements by the two candidates in the 2004 presidential campaign.

As you might expect, both groups found ways to reconcile the inconsistencies to support and further polarize their beliefs.

The brain scans confirmed that the parts of the subjects’ brains associated with reasoning registered little activity while they weighed the inconsistent statements.

In contrast, the circuits associated with the regulation of emotion, as well as those responsible for resolving conflicts, got quite busy.

In addition, once the participants found a way to explain the inconsistencies to support their original positions, the part of the brain involved in reward and pleasure became active.

Bottom line:

Motivated reasoning triggers our emotional centers, and once that happens, we cannot easily change feelings, opinions, and decisions.

In fact, we get pleasure out of finding consistencies and agreement.

Most bosses feel pretty sure of themselves.

Over time, they feel even more so, as their opinions of themselves become more and more deeply ingrained.

A few tips to combat the too-proud-to-see syndrome:

Keep an eye out for it!

If you’ve read this far you’re now aware of it. The more you keep an eye out for it, the more likely you can keep it under control. The more you’ll see it in others too.

Surround yourself with objective allies.

Rather than cocooning yourself with people who think the same as you, build a team of trusted advisors who keep you and the team rooted in objective reality.

Rely on facts rather than feelings.

When emotions come into play it’s harder to view the situation objectively. Have an objective third party separate fact from fiction: writing what is definitely true about the situation at hand on a board can help.

Listen!

Remember the “eyes-to-ears ratio” rule: Listen at least twice as much as you talk. A good listener comments on and often praises the other person’s point of view, even if the listener holds a diametrically opposed perspective.

Invite opposition to your ideas.

The best leaders are good students, as well. They listen carefully to what others think and they actually change their minds when the facts convince them to do so.

It’s very difficult to accept we might not be right about something, particularly something related to our line of work.

Even the smartest man or woman in the room can screw up from time to time.

But screw-ups need not mire you in the quicksand of self-pity or self-destruction.

They happen to us all.

Also, being aware of the too-proud-to-see syndrome doesn’t mean you’ll always be wrong, it’s simply to expand your self-awareness.

Just pausing to cast an objective eye on your behavior or asking a trusted ally to tell you the honest truth can keep you on track.

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