In complex environments, leaders must stop being right
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

Take a moment and notice: What does it feel like to be right?

I bet you can’t really tell. Because it just feels … normal.

I’m sure that you can answer much more easily what being wrong feels like. I’m guessing: Embarrassing, shameful, wanting to hide it from others … Right? Well, for what it’s worth: You’re not alone!

So let’s take this to the level of a company, or really any kind of group where you and many others come together who also feel that they’re right most of the time. Here’s the thing:

It’s not being wrong that creates deadlock in companies. It’s being right – and while the deadlock of rightness happens at every level, it’s particularly dangerous to the company’s well-being if it happens on the board level.

Imagine yourself at a board meeting:

The feeling of being absolutely certain is what has one leader argue that the only way to stay profitable is to outsource the call centre while another leader is absolutely certain that AI is the only solution that will work in the long term. They both cannot believe that the others are not getting it!

As if it was possible to know for sure today what strategy will turn out the right one for the organisation. Today really no one can have the full picture in our ever less predictable and linear, but ever more complex and fast changing environment. Let’s get back to that board meeting. This might not be your remit and responsibility, it doesn’t affect you, and you might just be sitting there thinking “Get a grip on it, and let’s make a decision, either way!”

But far from it: Both leaders gather all the arguments they can think of to prove that they’re right. What they’re really doing, though unconsciously, is nothing but pretending that their opinion is the result of rational arguments, well thought through.

Alas, neuroscience has brutally dismantled this as illusion. What’s really happening is that they’re acting on emotions. They don’t even know it, because they’ve come up with the reasoning behind their opinion too fast for even themselves to notice that they’re not getting emotional because they’re right. They’re not getting emotional because the board would make a huge mistake by investing into the other leader’s suggestion.

What really happens is that they act on an emotion in the first place, and now they’re building a case for their emotion led opinion.

When you look at this deadlock from this point of view, it would actually help everyone to take a deep breath and recover to become curious once more. This would allow the board to look at the stories of how to respond to market pressures together and perhaps add another one or two alternative stories which may also be equally valid.

This in turn might lead to experimenting with both a small call centre and a small AI pilot project, and to stay open to a third and perhaps even better way that might evolve from these experiments.

Stopping “being right” is what leading in a complex world needs from leaders. It’s one way of getting a deadlocked organisation back on track.

It’s simple, but everyone involved needs to understand what’s happening, and to choose owning up to their sense of certainty as an emotion. And that of course can be hard.

Let’s take this back to you. Here’s what you need to know.

Certainty is an emotion. It’s a cousin of fear and anger. And it leads you to not take in information that challenges your way of thinking.

You automatically look at the world through the lens of your life’s experiences. Others have different experiences, thus a different lens, and so they may interpret “the facts” in a startingly different way than you. (Think Trump, vaccination, …)

This dynamic happens on a large scale in organisations.

The way out of deadlock is to outsmart your automaticity and to actively look for data that can proof you wrong.

It’s what good leaders do. To learn more about how to evolve into a leader for a complex environment, read about this case and others in Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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