August 6, 2013
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
The hardest part of leadership is knowing what’s really going on. We can’t bring people together to solve a problem or advance a goal if we don’t have shared understanding of what’s happening and what to do about it.
Humans have a strong need to believe that what they understand and see is exactly how the world is. That means we are often clueless about how much what looks like Truth to us is really personal interpretation of what’s going on. It’s as if we are predisposed by Mother Nature to not know how much we don’t know. Why?
Human limits: We can attend to only a limited amount of information and experiences available. And our values, education, experience, cognitive capacities, physical abilities, and developmental limitations influence what we see. We register some things, ignore others, and draw conclusions. All this occurs quickly and outside of awareness.
The result: what leaders see and think can seem more like Truth and the way the world really is than the individual creations and interpretations that they are. The tacit nature of all this can blind leaders to gaps and inaccuracies. It also leaves little incentive for them to question their interpretations or retrace any of their steps from data selection through decisions about appropriate action.
Human need for certainty: We’d never be able to act if we had to think all the time about what we are missing. The big problem is when people create explanations of what things mean and assume that others either see things the same way or, if they don’t, are wrong. Here is the basis for conflict and confusion.
From thought to action: People’s personal interpretations are prescriptions for how they and others should respond. If we see our unit’s budget problem as over-spending, we’ll cut expenses. If we see inadequate allocations, we’ll lobby for more. If we sense embezzlement, we’ll call the cops. You see the ease and the potential complications in all this. We’re often off and running before we’re even sure where we should be heading.
“We carve out order by leaving the disorderly parts out,” concluded eminent psychologist William James. How do we remind ourselves that this is what we are doing?
Successful leaders bring habits of the mind that make them deliberate information gathers who work to understand a situation from multiple perspectives. They respect the need for action, but know that the right response is better than a quick wrong response. They build relationships that enable others to feel safe disagreeing with them. They listen to what other’s tell them and work to confirm (or disconfirm) the accuracy of their perceptions. They test interpretations and experiment with solutions.