My business passion is helping executives get out of their own way. Some of that work involves helping them come to terms with the business implications of the following: The human brain is geared, at least in part, to keep us comfortable and that “comfort” rather than “truth” predisposes us to doing dumb things, including making the same kinds of seemingly irrational mistakes over, and over, and over.
In last month’s column, I said the following: “Wisdom is NOT an automatic by-product of experience. Here’s the formula:
Wisdom = experience x reflection x relentless honesty x accountability (accepting consequences with no blame, no finger-pointing, no excuses, no whining, no escape-hatch) x behavioral change.
Each of these elements is necessary, but alone, each is insufficient; it takes them all.” If that is true (and I have found that it is true for me), a lot of very bright people who make lots of money running huge organizations have very little wisdom. They frequently create tomorrow with little regard for the lessons of yesterday and then rationalize, blame or justify their results when their outcomes are ugly. Why do they do that? Why do we ALL do that? As it turns out, it’s human nature.
First… some examples:
• As his company’s CEO, John refused to fire Sales VP Jeffrey, believing that he (John) could coach Jeffrey into being more effective when ALL of the evidence suggested that would be impossible.
• As the head of marketing at her company, Melissa convinced herself that her CEO Marsha didn’t like her and that she (Melissa) was singled out for Marsha’s dislike. She worked herself up to the point of having to be hospitalized when the fact of the matter was that Marsha displayed disdain for EVERYONE.
• Bob opened a sporting goods store on the same premises that two failed businesses selling virtually the same merchandise had operated earlier. He convinced himself that he would be successful when all of the demographic and marketing data suggested that he would not. His business survived for less than two years.
Two non-business examples:
• Frank’s father had been an abusive alcoholic. Frank vowed to be different. Fast-forward to adulthood, and Frank also became an abusive alcoholic.
• Mary was raised in a home with a father who physically abused all of the women in the family. She later married a man who did likewise.
These examples actually have a great deal in common. The commonality is that our individual world-views – our “maps” of reality – are formed very early. How objective we are, how slavish we are to self-destructive impulses, how we define “love,” the degree to which we listen to feedback, are all formed and reinforced to the point of near permanence by the age of 10. I say “near” because we now know that we can form new neuro-pathways (Google “neuro-plasticity” for more on this) resulting in profound change for our entire lives, but most people don’t bother, preferring instead to regard themselves as finished products at the ripe old age of 30 or so.
Here’s how that happens: Think of your psyche as a blank slate when we’re born. Early experiences write on that slate. As there is little or no countermanding evidence on the slate at the time, our subconscious regards those experiences as facts. As more experiences comport with their earlier counterparts, we unconsciously develop “rules” or “maps.” I use the term maps because these rules provide our navigational guidance through life.
The pain of negative experiences often goes unrecognized or dismissed, but it always has an impact on the way we conduct our lives. According to Johns Hopkins trained psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, MD: “Like planets held in orbit by gravitational fields, human beings gravitate toward high-energy psychological dynamics, whether those dynamics are conscious or not. And buried pain is the most magnetic psychological force of all. Left to simmer underground, it becomes irresistible and draws us back into the destructive patterns of emotion and behavior that first created it.”
The word “patterns” is critical. We ALL develop repetitive patterns reflective of our earliest influences. If a person learns not to trust because of early childhood experiences, “trust” can become an issue in later life.
These behavior patterns congeal over time and often create problems or opportunities in the workplace. For an individual who has developed an “if you want something done right, do it yourself” mindset, ascending to a managerial leadership position or performing effectively in such a position will likely be problematic.
What can one do?
• Deliberately put people in your life who will give you critical feedback and when they give it, pay attention.
• Read material that provides varying perspectives on any issue or subject. I often challenge people to peruse my personal library and try to discern my views on ANYTHING. If you only read material that validates your world view and preconceptions, you simply cannot grow.
• “Decisiveness” and “correctness” are not the same. Come to terms with that.
• Become aware of your reasoning pitfalls and develop methodologies to overcome them. Critical thinkers analyze the way they think, and the quality of their reasoning.
• Most humans live within meanings, world views and beliefs that entrap them. Raise your reasoning with the help of relentless scrutiny.
• Most people are governed by their thoughts. Learn ways to govern the thoughts that govern you.
Support mechanisms exist that can help you in every one of these areas. Put them to use for your benefit as a leader in your business, home and community. None of us has to be a victim of our experiences or limited by a restrictive self-concept.