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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?’
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.