Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Inconvenient Belief

I have just been listening to a boffin on a science program on the ABC. The scientist was talking about how they could work out long past climate activities in Queensland by looking at salt deposits in layers of ice in the Antarctic. Apparently, an El Nino effect causes increased rain in Queensland and in turn reduces salt in the air in the Antarctic and, hence, less salt being deposited on the surface of the ice. This is yet another example of the mind numbing complexity of phenomena that has long been described in complexity theory.

One of our many human foibles is that we like simple explanations for events. Humans are really good at inventing quite sophisticated mystical reasons for phenomena if an immediate physical cause cannot be identified. Even science has been guilty for rather simplistic linear thinking. And it is in explaining social phenomena that we take this short cuts taking in our data gathering, thinking and analysis to an extreme.

We are hard wired to make quick assumptions based on limited data. And this makes sense from a biological and survival point of view. It saves on processing power and avoids the risk of overloading busy and somewhat limited iconic and short-term memory systems. We increase our chances of survival by not spending too much time focussed on one object and missing critical elements in the environment. You can see this working in a cocktail party where we will pick up a mention of our name on the other side of the room in a hubbub of noise while we are engaged in conversation with another group. Our perception systems are based on the ability to make wholes out of small amounts of data. When we look around a room we only take in a limited amount of information visually: our brain makes up the rest.

There is growing neurological evidence demonstrating that the way in which we make judgements and decisions is less rational than we like to think and is enormously complex. Decision-making is fraught precisely because of the way in which we draw on emotion and previous experience that generate preference, rather than examining the facts with any conviction. Stereotyping, racial bias, and misogyny are classic negative examples of this phenomenon. A convenient belief will trump facts any time.

Leaders are no less prone to these basic human traits. The different might be that the impact of poor judgements and decision-making might be greater than for others. Let me give a couple of examples. Our previous experience and preferences can affect our choice of leadership style that might be quite ineffective but we ignore what research might tell us about leadership effectiveness and carry on regardless. The same can be said for the way in which participative process is often ignored in organisations despite the fact that it leads to better outcomes. Leaders are great at locking onto a fad or a sharp talking consultant with a cookie-cutter solution to all problems. They eschew the evidence that demonstrates that all solutions need to be custom made to acknowledge the hopeless complexity of nearly everything.

Leaders inevitably make judgements about people. Our personal preferences can make or ruin a career, and diminish or enhance team or organisational effectiveness. We can surround ourselves with people who make us feel comfortable or we can hire people who are innovative, challenge our beliefs and judgements, and who bring diversity to decision-making.

Effective leaders recognise the hopeless complexity of the social (and physical) world and the limitations of their brain that seeks simple explanations and quick solutions based on immediate perception. What they do is to use processes to try to counter this propensity. They do research, use participative process, and seek out naysayers and people who naturally challenge. They seek to recognise the emotional reasons for their decisions and judgements.

No easy task but better leadership.