How to avoid brain sabotage

Most of the time, your brain goes all out to help you. Sometimes, though, for the best of reasons, it sabotages you instead. This happens particularly when you’re dealing with complex issues or information – and what leader-manager doesn’t deal with complex issues and information?!  Here are six ways your brain can sabotage you.

  1. Seeing what you want to see. The brain naturally seeks evidence that confirms and supports your point of view or preferred course of action. It also avoids information that contradicts what you already ‘know’ or believe to be so. This affects where you go to collect information (which Dr Google continues to offer up when for later searches), how you interpret it, and who you listen to. It causes you to put too much weight on information that supports your thinking and to overly discount information that challenges it.What to do about it? Don’t make a decision and then figure out how to justify it. Don’t undermine the real facts with your own expectations and biases. Don’t accept confirming evidence without question. Be aware of your opinion and admit your inclination to think a certain way. Consciously open your mind to other viewpoints. Find someone to play devil’s advocate and argue against you.
  2. Anchoring. This means giving too much weight to what you see or hear first and last, whether it’s information, evidence, opinions, estimates or ideas.What to do about it? Be cautious about your first and last impressions and information. Make an effort to give fair weight to what you see and learn in between and don’t automatically stick with whatever idea occurs to you first.
  3. Sticking with the status quo. The conventional wisdom of ‘Leave well enough alone’ and ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ warns us not to do anything radical or different. It often seems easier to stick with things as they are. Doing nothing is a lot easier than making an effort to do something differently. And the less action you take, the less open you are to criticism. Inertia is temptingly safe.What to do about it? Maintaining the status quo might be a good choice, but don’t do it just because it’s safe and easy. Ask yourself: ‘What do I want to achieve? Does the current situation do this well enough for me or could an alternative be better?’ A great question is: ‘Would I select the status quo if it were just another alternative?’
  4. Estimating and forecasting. This is a double whammy. The first whammy is with everyday estimates. Take the example of judging distance. For this, your brain uses a mental shortcut that equates clarity with closeness. This means that the more clearly an object appears, the closer you think it is. That’s generally fine – until haze or fog tricks you into thinking things are further away than they are. That can be dangerous: studies show that people drive faster in fog because the reduced clarity and contrast make people think they’re driving slower than they really are.The second whammy is estimating and forecasting in situations you don’t often encounter. When you estimate the same sorts of things a lot – distance, time, volume, weight – you become pretty good at it because you have a lot of feedback on how well you guess. But when you’re faced with something unusual, you haven’t had a chance to develop and fine-tune your estimating skills in that area, making the task a lot more difficult. As a result, you’re likely to become either over-confident or over-cautious, or to rely too much on past events or dramatic events that have left a strong impression – none of which leads to accuracy.There isn’t much you can do about those automatic mental shortcuts except be disciplined. Realise they exist, think about the assumptions you’re making to make sure you’re not going off at a tangent, try not to be guided by impressions, and when you can, use accurate facts and figures. Then cross your fingers, know your guesstimate is a long shot, and be prepared to be wrong and change course when it fails.
  5. Not cutting your losses. It’s hard to turn your back on the time, effort and money you’ve put into something. You see it as a waste, and who doesn’t hate waste!The world’s richest man, Warren Buffet, said that the best thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging and get out. Good advice. Consider the costs of not cutting your losses and moving on and think about what you have to gain by moving on.
  6. Pattern recognition. When you’re faced with a new situation, you automatically pull together information from up to 30 parts of your brain. This usually works well but it can also mislead you, particularly when you’re dealing with situations that seem to be familiar but actually turn out to be unusual. You think you know what’s going on, but you don’t. History doesn’t always repeat itself, especially today, when change is coming fast and furious. This means that what worked fine last year may not work again this year because conditions, the economy, technology and people have probably all changed and those changes influence what does and doesn’t work.What to do about it? Rather than blindly following past experience over a cliff, think about whether your memories and experience could be misleading you. Think about what might be different about this situation to other seemingly similar situations. When you decide to apply the solution or action that worked last time, be prepared to cut your losses as soon as you can see it isn’t working.

Your brain is usually your friend, but it can be your foe when you let it! Forewarned is forearmed.


Help people through change

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: Change is all around us. Society, the marketplace, the economy and technology are all transforming with dizzying speed. For instance:

  • Australia’s economy has become a service and knowledge economy, which means organisations don’t gain their value from their machinery and equipment but from their people. Organisational wealth comes from successfully storing and using knowledge to create innovative products and services and develop innovative, sustainable, value-adding and profitable systems.
  • Our definition of what a family unit is continues to change.
  • The capabilities of information, communications and bio and nano technologies (e.g. motor the size of a pinhead) continue to soar and promise to transform our lives.
  • Globalisation makes it easier for epidemics to wipe out or temporarily disable a significant portion of our population and wipe out all or part of an organisation’s supply chain.

And that’s just a sample of what’s going on around us. The world is changing so fast that standing still doesn’t exist – we’re either moving forward and making progress or we’re going backward. In fact, the speed of change is speeding up, and right now is the slowest we’ll ever experience it.

To survive, never mind thrive, we all need to stay on top of the game and better still, stay one step ahead. We all need keep up to date with trends so we can more easily adapt as everything around us changes. Perhaps more than anything, we need to keep learning – about the area and industry we work in, about the technology we use, and about new ways of doing things.

Don’t change the rules

Maybe you’ve spent time in a European country or North America. If you drove or even crossed the street, how hard was it to get used to driving on the right or looking right before crossing the road? Hard, right?

There’s a good reason for that. Yes, old habits die hard. And more than that, the first rules we learn (‘Look right, look left, then look right again’) are exceedingly ‘sticky’. That makes them not just hard to unlearn, but really, really, really hard to unlearn.

Unlearning something and learning something else to replace it is frustrating. It’s mentally exhausting. That’s just one of many good reasons to hire trainable people rather than people with experience – your rules and procedures are likely to be slightly different and therefore, require unlearning and re-learning. Old habits die hard and the longer we’ve had them, the more effort and the longer it takes to replace them. To help new starts perform well, hire people who haven’t done the specific tasks they’ll be doing in your team.

To help your team perform well, don’t change rules without a compelling reason. (This applies to your customers and your family, too. It does not apply to continuous incremental improvements.)

There’s enough change to deal with without creating more change unnecessarily.


R A M it home!

Have you ever asked someone to do something for you, like adopt a new procedure or take on different job duties, and it wasn’t done as you’d hoped or expected? Or wasn’t even done at all?

Survey after survey tells us that up to three quarters of change efforts fail. Old habits are hard to break; those strong, old neural pathways just keep resurfacing and smothering the new ones we’re trying to build.

That’s why asking people to change the way they do something, or just to do something, is often not as simple as it seems. Here’s a little memory jogger – RAM – to remind you how to RAM what you want home without ramming it down people’s throats.

R – Realistic: Make sure what you ask is sensible and practical. Is the person interested in doing it? What’s in it for them? (Ye olde WIFM)

A – Achievable: Does the person have the time and resources (tools, equipment, information, your shared vision) to do it? Do they know how to do it?

M – Measurable: This makes what you’re asking clear, so people know precisely what you’re looking for from them. When they don’t know precisely what you want, the chances you get it are slim. Explain what you want, why you want it and why you’re aksking that person to do it (and not someone else), when you want it and how or how well you want it done (when that isn’t immediately obvious).

The next time you ask someone to do something for you or to do something differently, RAM it home so you get what you expect.

Why our brains can’t help resisting change

In Chapter 18, we talk about ‘brain games’ or heuristics, the brain’s automatic programs that are designed to help us wade through complexity quickly. The brain is also hard-wired to resist change, which has huge implications for today’s managers who introduce and manage change regularly. Three programs in particular are designed to provide a sense of psychological security and they kick in particularly strongly whenever people are confronted with change – as most of us are in today’s workplaces.

First, the brain is programmed to seek evidence that the world is consistent: familiar, orderly, predictable and safe. That’s why people prefer bosses who are predictable, why familiar work routines are comforting and why change is uncomfortable and stressful.

The second brain program looks for the justice; we all feel much better when we believe our organisation’s mission is worthwhile and that it will treat us fairly. That’s why organisations have policies designed to protect employees and ensure they are treated fairly (dispute handling procedures, dignity and harassment policies, health, safety and welfare policies, etc.). And that’s why when you introduce change, even for a good reason, the ‘That’s not fair!’ cry can be heard loud and clear.

The third brain program looks for a sense of ‘culture’, or an accepted understanding of the way things are done around here. So when an organisation changes its key strategies or mission or when a work team reorganises itself, people need to remodel the way they view the world around them, and people don’t like doing that. Even when the reasons for changing ‘the way we do things’ are good, the implication that the way we’ve been doing them isn’t good hangs in the air.

So when peoples’ comfort zones or sense of consistency and justice are threatened, they tend to cross their arms, dig their heels in and fight (or ignore) the changes, or they try to escape to greener pastures. To prevent that and help people feel more comfortable with whatever change you’re introducing, keep up the information flow – what’s happening, why it’s happening, how people will be affected, how you’ll help them get used to the change. When you can, put the change in terms of ‘These are adjustments, or adaptations’ as opposed to making the change sound huge or like an about-face.

Take a look at this interesting article by James R. Bailey and Jonathan Raelin on the Harvard Business Review site.

Questions for discussion

What was the last workplace change you experienced? Did it pull you out of your comfort zone or did you feel that it was in some way unjust?