Do you consider yourself a rational thinker?
Chances are, assuming you are reasonably sane, your 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 in particular—and humans in general—are inherently rational is incorrect.
To begin to understand exactly why we aren’t the bastions of rationality we imagine, let’s travel back through millennia. Our ancient ancestors—early women and men—responded with lightning speed to the slightest of stimuli: a rustle in the bushes to the left, or perhaps a flicker of movement to the right. These reflexes were a matter of life and death for them. A barely perceptible sound or brief flash of color in their peripheral vision 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 real or perceived threats were eliminated. We are the product of the survivors: descendants of those whose healthy fear caused them to always respond to the rustle or flash as if it was a predator. That wiring remains within us.
“Man is many things, but he is not rational” – Oscar Wilde
This “fight or flight” instinct 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 decisions about the future of your company or consider firing a low-performing employee, even though there’s no real danger in your midst. Meanwhile, your body’s physical response reinforces the notion that your “fear” must be valid; you can feel it after all! As a result, an imaginary threat influences your decisions and actions, rather than the rational thought process you might otherwise imagine.
According to quite a bit of clinical research, it gets worse: We’re either blind to or in denial of many of our fears and emotionally based decisions because, when we make a decision, we immediately employ logic to justify our position.And the moment that after-the-fact logic is employed, the fear or emotion that drove the decision becomes invisible. In other words, we buy into our own hype!
Here’s an example of how this plays out in leadership: If you were to ask a CEO why she decided to continue doing business with a marginally profitable 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, and our well-intending CEO is unknowingly surrendering to her inherited emotional response.
We’ll look to psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the brain science of System 1 and System 2 thinking to better understand how our reality disconnects arise. 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. These are the survival instincts we inherited from our ancient ancestors! On the other hand, System 2 thinking is slower and more deliberate—it operates in situations where you’re carefully weighing options, rewards, and consequences.
To our benefit, System 1 thinking governs much of our lives. 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 and many spectacular athletic performances, for example). Well-formed habits also fall into the realm of System 1. But there are times—particularly in business—when this otherwise useful brain operating mode does more harm than good.
“Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” – Hugh Mackay
To run with its trademark speed, System 1 thinking relies on numerous cognitive biases—rules of thumb for your brain—that can foster irrational decision-making. Here are three I see often with negative impact on business leaders:
We tend to compare current conditions and experiences to previous ones, which serve as a frame of reference and influence our choices. For instance, if your last conversation with a member of your team was awkward or challenging, you’ll tend to assume that the next conversation with that person will be as well—and potentially try to avoid it.
Anchoring can also exert a dramatic impact on our interpretation of magnitude. Have you ever considered why new automobiles are labeled with a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) or why restaurant wine lists are sequenced to present the highest priced bottles first? These are both examples of savvy anchoring techniques that create an artificially high magnitude of comparison which, in turn, causes customers to spend more while thinking they’re getting a good deal.
In a leadership context, your anchoring bias can irrationally impact negotiations, decision making, prioritization, and even which behaviors you choose to tolerate in others.
Think of availability as a bias of proximity. So, for example, if you take a summer holiday to explore the natural beauty of Alaska, you’re probably not going to be concerned about being attacked by an alligator. You aren’t anywhere near alligators, so they’re not readily available to you or to your anxiety.
However, you may very well worry about the potential for an earthquake. Further, if an earthquake recently happened somewhere else in the world, your fear would become more pronounced, at least temporarily, especially if the potential for an earthquake might influence any of your decisions.
But your availability bias isn’t solely physical; it also operates within the realm of your thoughts. For example, if you’ve run your business in a specific manner for a long time, the models or processes you use are highly available. Without you realizing it, that availability stealthily encourages you to discount other options, even if their merits suggest otherwise. Your arguments to maintain the status quo may seem perfectly logical, but the justification is influenced by your availability bias.
Representativeness is a bias of categorization, a mental shortcut to save time and energy. For example, if I showed you a picture of two men—one tall and slim; the other short and fat, and then asked which one is more likely to be a professional athlete, most people wouldn’t hesitate to pick the tall and slim person. This is because we generally assume that athletes are fit which, indeed, is usually correct.
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 a particular position in your firm. Inevitably, you risk overlooking great candidates who could bring fresh—and highly valuable—perspective to your team.
So, how do you overcome your inherited tendency to unknowingly allow fear and emotion to hijack your choices and actions? This is where techniques to change the path of thinking and behavior come into play. I’ve labeled them Activators, and they aren’t just powerful, they’re also readily accessible: You can put them to work immediately to create tangible differences in your behavior and your results.
One is to cultivate System 2 thinking as part of your decision-making process by slowing down.When you lead a business, although it’s easy to feel like you need to provide instant answers to clients and employees—particularly in the face of a complaint, a request, or a negotiation, an instant answer is rarely required. When you give in to the urge to act or answer immediately, chances are the decision will be driven by emotion (quite often, fear) rather than by logic and rational thought.
Instead, resist. Find a way to take your time. A deep breath or any other meaningful pause overrides your default response and gives your brain the opportunity to slow down. By slowing down, you avoid the pitfalls knee-jerk, System 1 choices while activating System 2 for more logical and less emotional thinking.
By now you know that rational thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. Our emotions get in the way, feeding our fears. But you can override your default settings and lean into rationality directly—if you’re deliberate about it.
Getting rational, just like enabling System 2 thinking, also requires slowing down. Here’s an example of how this works: Over the years, I’ve encountered many business leaders with a habit of being seduced by their own busyness—essentially equating being busy with being productive. This causes them to gravitate toward fixing tactical, of-the-moment problems when, more rationally, they should be working on big-picture, higher-value aspects of the business, like assessing people or thinking strategically.
Rather than give in to the tactical urge, these leaders should slow down and get rational. When they stop before they act, they open a window of opportunity to deliberately and consciously compare the value of one activity to others and determine which has a higher long-term payoff on the investment of their time.
There’s another important opportunity here as well: room to assess whether someone else in the firm can handle the tactical issues so they can be delegated outright and, at the same time, potentially help a member of the team learn and grow.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, slowing things down before speeding them back up again is often the move that ensures you stay rational and on track.
This approach is also common in the physical realm. Here’s how the Space Shuttle, which weighed 4.4 million pounds at launch, attained earth orbit:
At launch, the shuttle’s main engines were fired to maximum thrust. However, about one minute after liftoff, to prevent the shuttle from shaking itself to pieces as it accelerated through the earth’s relatively thick lower atmosphere, the engines were throttled back to just 70% of their rated thrust. Then, about a minute or two later, as the atmosphere thinned through higher altitudes, the engines returned to maximum thrust to attain earth orbit.
To make orbit, the space shuttle literally slowed its acceleration before it sped back up!
The same is true of us as leaders. By slowing down, we are better able to keep things together—particularly our brain’s rational capabilities—in pursuit of the most rapid path to our goals and aspirations.
You now have the information you need to begin to override your brain’s hard-wired instincts and enable more rational thinking to improve your decisions and effectiveness as a leader. For more guidance and to accelerate your progress, consider slowing down a bit more and using these free assessments and tools along your way.
“Even the most analytical thinkers are predictably irrational; the really smart ones acknowledge and address their irrationalities.” – Dan Ariely
Although attempting this on your own will certainly provide insight and value, the most effective path is (always!) to have someone else by your side. An accountability partner, a mastermind group, a mentor, or a coach—all people with an external perspective to lend—will challenge your thinking, illuminate blind spots, and help you overcome the cognitive biases and irrationalities that cost you the most.
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