Debunking Leadership Myths #3 — I am Inherently Rational

Do you consider yourself rational?

Chances are, and assuming you are reasonably sane, the answer is “yes.” You may even find it a bit odd that I asked. And you’re not alone: We humans believe ourselves to be rational creatures. But the assumption that you—and humans at large—are inherently rational is actually our third myth. In short, none of us are.

To understand exactly why we aren’t the bastions of rationality we imagine, let’s travel back through millennia. Our human ancestors—the early women and men—on the plains of Africa responded with lightning speed to the slightest of stimuli: a rustle in the bushes to the left, a flicker of movement in the periphery. Why? It was a matter of life and death for them! The barely perceptible sound or flash of color in the distance could have been a predator. Sometimes, it was. Often, of course, it was just the wind.

But our ancestors couldn’t be too cautious; natural selection ensured those who didn’t react to the sights and sounds they detected were eliminated. We are the product of those who survived: the descendants of those who always responded to that rustle or flash as if it were a predator. That wiring remains in each of us.

This “fight or flight” wiring influences us constantly, raising our blood pressure and preparing us physically to “fight for our lives” even in the comfort of our own offices. For example, your pulse accelerates as you make a decision about the future of your company or consider firing a low-performing employee, despite the fact that there’s no real danger in your midst. Your physical response tells you your fear must be valid; you can feel it after all. As a result, it’s the fear that fuels your actions, rather than the rational thought process you might otherwise imagine.

It gets worse: You’re either blind to or in denial of the vast majority of your fears and the emotionally based decisions you make. Why?

After we make an emotionally based decision, we use logic to justify our position. And when that logic is employed – even after the fact – the fear that actually drives our decisions becomes invisible. We buy into our own hype.

Here’s an example. If you were to ask a CEO why she decided to continue doing business with a client who posed numerous challenges, she would undoubtedly give you a perfectly logical argument, delineating the client’s value to the company and how it outweighs the difficulty they cause. It’s not an excuse; she truly believes that rational thinking, rather than fearing the loss of revenue or operating income, is behind her choice. In my experience, 99% of the time, the fear of loss drives this decision – our CEO is unknowingly surrendering to her emotional response.

We can turn to psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his explanation of System 1 and System 2 thinking to better understand how this disconnect arises. System 1 thoughts are instinctive and automatic: You bolt upright in bed when you hear a noise in the middle of the night, or brake while driving when you detect motion in your peripheral vision. System 2 thinking is slower and more deliberate—it operates in any situation in which you’re carefully weighing options, rewards, and consequences.

System 1 thinking governs much of our lives, often to our benefit. The quickness of System 1 processing makes us efficient, saving us time when it counts (we have System 1 thinking to thank for innumerable narrowly missed collisions). But there are times—particularly in business—when it does more harm than good.

To operate with its trademark speed, System 1 thinking relies on numerous rule-of-thumb biases that foster unconscious fear-based decision-making. Here are three I often see with negative impact on business leaders:

  • Anchoring: we tend to compare current experiences to previous ones, which serve as a frame of reference and color our approach. If your last conversation was as or more difficult than expected, for instance, you’ll avoid the next potentially challenging interaction to prevent a similar experience. 
  •  Availability: Think of availability as a bias of proximity. Most Californians don’t spend much time worrying about being attacked by an alligator. They don’t live near alligators, so the threat isn’t readily available or anxiety provoking. Catastrophic earthquakes, however, are another story. Here’s how availability bias applies to business: If you’ve been operating in a specific manner for a long time, the model or processes you use are highly available. Without realizing it, availability stealthily encourages you to discount other options and resist change, even if the merits suggest otherwise. 
  • Representativeness: Representativeness is a bias of categorization, a mental shortcut to put time on our side. If I were to show you a picture of two men, one tall and thin and the other short and fat, and ask you which one is more likely to be a professional athlete, you wouldn’t hesitate to pick the former. But overgeneralizing can be limiting. Say you’ve made a habit of hiring people with a certain background because someone with that background did well in that particular position. Inevitably, you’re overlooking great candidates who could bring fresh—and highly valuable—perspective to the role and to your firm. 

So, how do you overcome your tendency to let fear take the wheel and lean on logic to obscure that reality? This is where Activators, techniques to change the trajectory of your thinking, and thus, your behavior, come into play. Activators aren’t just powerful, they’re also readily accessible: You can put them to work right away to create a tangible difference in your behavior and your results.

We can turn to Activator #1, Reduce Fear, to neutralize the impact of our fears and take charge of our thinking and behaviors. There are a few techniques you can use to interrupt fear-based decision-making, right now.

One is to cultivate System 2 thinking as part of your decision-making process by slowing down. When you’re leading a business, it’s easy to feel like you need to provide an instant answer to a key client or employee who is making a demand or trying to negotiate a better deal for themselves. But that’s often not the case. And if you give in to the urge to act or answer immediately, chances are the decision you make will be driven by emotion (quite often, fear).

Instead, resist. Find a way to press pause. Taking a deep breath—or any other meaningful pause—overrides the default response and gives your brain the opportunity to slow down. By slowing down, you avoid the pitfalls of making a knee-jerk, System 1 choice and activate System 2 for more logical and less emotional thinking.

Activator #3, Get Rational (and Slow Down), provides additional insight into how to overcome emotionally-based decision-making. By now you know that rational thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. Our emotions get in the way, feeding our fears. But we can choose to override that and lean into rationality—if we are deliberate about it.

Just as enabling System 2 thinking requires slowing down, so does getting rational. Many business leaders are in the habit of being seduced by their own busyness. If this is the case for you, when you should be working on a big-picture (i.e., high-value) aspect of the business—like assessing trends or thinking strategically—you may be tempted to skip it in favor of fixing the (tactical) thing right in front of you that seems to be broken.

Rather than give in to that urge, you can slow down and get rational. Compare the value of one activity to the other and determine which has a higher long-term payoff. You should also ask yourself whether someone else in the firm could handle the immediate issue, delegating it entirely and—perhaps—helping someone else on your team learn and grow.

Although conducting these thought exercises by yourself will provide insight and value, the most effective path is to have someone else lead the way. A coach, accountability partner, or mastermind group can challenge your thinking and help you avoid buying into faulty assumptions.

With these strategies, you can begin to override your emotions and activate more rational thinking to improve decision making. But this article is just the beginning! For a comprehensive guide to interrupting fear and improving rational thinking for greater success in business and beyond, check out my book Activatorsand the free assessments and tools at Mark-Green.com.

The next article in my Leadership Myths series busts the myth that “fear matters, but not that much.” In it, we’ll take a deep dive into the dark realm of the three big fears that impact business leaders (like me…and you!) and shed light on how to limit their effect.

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In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

A CEO’s Guide to Reenergizing the Senior Team

Back in 2009, in the middle of what was then the worst financial and economic calamity since the Great Depression, McKinsey author Derek Dean wrote an article to rally the spirits of top executives. Fear of the crisis had paralyzed many of them. Others were in denial—they claimed that it didn’t require new business models, new assumptions, or new mindsets. People who had gone from success to success suddenly learned what it’s like to fail. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is very different from the 2008–09 financial crisis, its psychological impact on the C-suite and other managers isn’t. To prevent another cycle of fear, failure, and paralysis, CEOs don’t have to become armchair psychotherapists, but they do have to address the emotional lives of their top executives.

Back on Track: What Leaders Can Learn from Ferrari’s Approach to the Pandemic

Headquartered in Maranello, a small town in the heart of Italy, Ferrari has been preparing since the start of the crisis to ensure that when it reopens its factory and headquarters, it does so safely. According to Michele Antoniazzi, the company’s Chief Human Resources officer, on January 21, 2020, when the coronavirus was ravaging the population of Wuhan, China, Ferrari executives asked themselves an important question: “Let’s assume that such a virus arrives here in Maranello. What should we do now, to avoid devastation and survive as a company?”

The plan that emerged consisted of three stages in three different areas: Core Activities, Employee’s care and Stakeholders value. Themed “Back on Track,” Ferrari’s leaders aimed at allowing workers to be as safe as possible upon their return to work. As a result, when the authorities allow the factory and offices to reopen, Ferrari will be ready.

Leaders in other industries can adopt Ferrari’s approach and adapt it to their own situation. This article outlines the key steps to follow.

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