It would be great, wouldn’t it, if chocolate was one of the four food groups?
That’s an idea I’ve suggested (just a wee bit tongue in cheek) for lots of years. Despite my extreme fondness for chocolate, though, I don’t indulge every day. Some days I want a different treat. Why? The joy of variety.
Over a caffe mocha (of course!), a friend and I were discussing the general state of world affairs, which led to talking about success, civility, inclusion, leadership, and respect. My friend and I both worked in corporate America for many years, sometimes at the same company at the same time.
None of our corporate employers were interested in the joy of variety; they were interested in only one flavor—numbers. Reports, meetings, discussions, performance evaluations, etc., centered around the bottom line. We were ambitious, so we conformed and played along in valuing results more than relationships. Today, the memories—and shame—of my complicity haunt me.
If you love chocolate like I do, imagine how frustrating it would be to walk into ice cream parlor after ice cream parlor to find that vanilla was the only flavor sold. If you own an ice cream parlor and love vanilla, imagine how wearisome it would be to have to deal with those people “who can’t get with the program” and keep demanding chocolate.
Don’t these situations parallel what many people encounter when they go to work? The expectation to do things “one way” or else? The pressure to conform or else? The frustration? No wonder employee engagement is at an all-time low.
Having standardized business processes and procedures makes good business sense; otherwise, there’s confusion and chaos. But standardized everything, the one flavor approach from processes to thinking to doing leaves no room for joy of variety (the 31 flavors!) in thought, opinion, perspective, and experience that brings zest to life, love, and leadership.
Being ‘right’ is the easy part. Finding the ‘rightness’ within the opposite point of view is the challenge. ~Barry Johnson, author Polarity Management
One corporate boss was extreme in his preference for numbers and results. I struggled with his unyielding orientation.
As you might imagine, that boss and I had our challenges. While our approaches were different, we had the advantage of liking and respecting each other. Our spirited debates were sometimes epic.
Over time we realized our region was most successful when there was a focus on both results and relationships. Our path of learning to accept “multiple flavors” was a bumpy yet rewarding one filled with lessons, loud voices, and laughter as we learned about our blind spots and tested our tolerance for seeing beyond our own preferences.
5 leadership gifts that keep giving and giving
While that boss and I learned many things, five items made a profound difference in how we approached one other, issues, and those around us.
1) To be mindful about using the word should.Thoughts about what should be introduce personal bias, which reduces open-mindedness, which in turn increases right versus wrong arguments, which leads to reduced opportunity and morale.
2) To replace the word or with “and.”Either/or thinking zaps innovation and inclusion; both/and thinking boosts them. Using “and” expands comfort zones, too. That boss and I discovered that we usually preferred one side of “or” to the other. However, when we considered the big picture, it became easy to see that the words existing on either side of the word or were both equally important over time, like results and relationships.
3) To be curious. Taking Walt Whitman’s advice to be curious, not judgmental, was a game changer. We learned more, reduced bias, and had fun seeing things we would have missed before.
4) To pay attention to our hot buttons. When people or events set us off, we reflected instead of reacting, which made a positive difference in us as leaders and people.
5) To express gratitude and appreciation. We discovered that letting go of being the all-knowing tough guy who’s got everything under control is liberating, that recognizing others is great fun, and that focusing on what we had instead of what we didn’t have lightened the mental and emotional load.
Instead of contradicting each other’s view, the task is to supplement each other’s view in order to see the whole picture. Each of them has key pieces to the puzzle. Paradoxically, opposition becomes resource. ~Barry Johnson, author Polarity Management
Five little big things made all the difference in us becoming “31 flavors” leaders and, more importantly, better people—a gift to ourselves and others that keeps giving.
“Tia, you make me crazy. Can’t you do anything without planning it to death? This work needs to go out now.”
“Hunter, this project isn’t ready to go. If we release it now, there’s going to be rework and more rework. Not to mention all the complaints we’ll get.”
“Time is money, Tia. All your dithering over getting it right is costing the company money. We’ve got to get moving.”
“Time spent on rework wastes money, too. Hunter. I don’t get how you can’t see that.”
“What I see, Tia, is you holding everyone up because of your ridiculous obsession with planning and perfection.”
“I’m not worried about perfection, you moron. I just want things to work right.”
Tia and Hunter’s raised voices had drawn the attention of their boss, Alonzo. It wasn’t the first time their disputes had disrupted the office. He called them into his office.
After a lengthy and passionate conversation, the three of them emerged with a plan—and peace.
Alonzo was a gifted leader who understood how to manage people through, and around, the perils, pitfalls, and polarization associated with binaryeither/or thinking.
3 ways to champion diversity
Here’s three actions Alonzo knew were needed to help Tia and Hunter see beyond “my way versus your way” so they could work together and get the job done.
1) Keep the end goal and what you need to accomplish in mind—always.
Both Tia and Hunter were passionate about their project. They believed they were doing purposeful work that would benefit employees and customers. However, in their zeal in promoting their personal vision for how the work should be handled, they got bogged down in details and lost sight of their over-arching purpose.
Alonzo helped them see how taking sides and pointing fingers only slowed their progress in reaching the common goal they shared.
2) Recognize that there’s usually more than one way to get something done.
Tia was a methodical planner; Hunter was intuitive and spontaneous. Tia wanted to work out all the details in advance. Hunter saw work elements that could withstand a little risk-taking and could be released sooner. Instead of addressing the merits of what the other was proposing, Tia and Hunter fought over whose approach was right and whose was wrong.
Alonzo helped them appreciate how both of them were right but for different reasons. Some of their work did require thoughtful planning and testing to avoid unnecessary issues; other parts didn’t require such meticulous attention. Alonzo guided them in dividing their work into phases that could be released at different times.
Alonzo used the metaphor of taking a road trip to enlighten Tia and Hunter about multiple approaches. He asked them to name what route they would take to visit a big city. Hunter said he would use the freeway. Tia wanted to travel back roads. Alonzo asked them what did it matter what roads they traveled as long as they reached their destination. Neither Tia nor Hunter could offer a valid reason.
3) Appreciate that standing up for what you believe in doesn’t mean being uncompromising or intolerant about other perspectives.
Convinced that their approach to their project was the right one, both Tia and Hunter had asserted their preferences as incontrovertible truths. Either/or thinking (and hubris) does that to people. They assert the rightness of their position, the wrongness of those who see things differently, and lose sight of the big picture.
Alonzo helped Tia and Hunter realize their lack of skill in doubting the correctness of their position and the incorrectness of the other’s. He encouraged them to take a step back going forward and think critically before jumping in, especially when they were so passionate about something. Alonzo told them that passion and absolute, unyielding certainty is a warning sign for a big blind spot.
Life, love, and leadership don’t lend themselves to cookie-cutter solutions. Understanding that and managing around it helps effective leaders have a plan—and peace.
Exclusion is always dangerous. Inclusion is the only safety if we are to have a peaceful world. ~Pearl S. Buck
Once upon a time there was boss who was an extrovert and who preferred working with extroverts. He liked people jockeying to make themselves heard and found the quiet, reflective ones annoying. Over time, he quit adding introverts to his team and weeded out those who had joined the team before he took over.
He was shocked when a class action discrimination charge was filed against him.
It’s estimated that somewhere between 50 and 74 percent of the population are extroverts. This boss preferred working with talkative, high-energy, action-oriented people. He loved having a team of outgoing individuals who didn’t hesitate to share their opinions, even if they had to talk over each other to do so. This boss believed reflective and thoughtful individuals who weren’t johnnie-on-the-spot with a loud opinion weren’t qualified to work in his department.
This boss let his preference—his bias—morph into prejudice, which resulted in discrimination.
Let’s take a look at how this hierarchy of harm unfolds:
Bias: a tendency to favor or disfavor that prevents neutral consideration.
Prejudice: a preconceived opinion, prejudgment, or attitude that negatively impact one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions about a group or individual.
Discrimination: unfair, inappropriate, unjustifiable, and negative behavior toward a group or its members.
Having a bias for extroverts didn’t make this boss a bad person. What made him a bad leader, though, was that he failed to control for his bias.
He’s not alone. Even though we like to fancy ourselves as unbiased, we’re all biased. In fact, our brains facilitate it.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls it “System 1” thinking, an “effortless, often unconscious process that infers and invents causes and intentions, neglects ambiguity, suppresses doubt, and uses similarity rather than probability.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell calls it “the power of thinking without thinking.”
We all occasionally go on autopilot, especially when under pressure or experiencing something new, and rely on the mental pairings we make when we fold things into our memory. Being an effective leader. though, depends on whether or not we tame our biases or let them control what we do.
5 common workplace cognitive biases
Biases are everywhere. “Cultural biases are like smog in the air,” says Jennifer Richeson, a Yale psychologist. “To live and grow up in our culture, then, is to ‘take in’ these cultural messages and biases and do so largely unconsciously.”
Some biases bubble up more frequently than others. As you read about these five common biases, think about where you work. Can you see the influence of that bias in how your workplace culture thinks, feels, and acts?
Anchoring: the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions.
Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
Groupthink: the psychological phenomenon for alignment that occurs within a group of people because of the desire for, and/or pressure to, have harmony or conformity.
Halo effect: the tendency for someone’s overall impression of a person, either good or bad, to be influenced by how they feel and think about the other person’s character.
Overconfidence effect: the tendency for someone to believe subjectively that his or her judgement is better or more reliable than it objectively is.
Bias is tricky to manage. Why? Because it’s difficult for us to see our own biases.
We bump into the introspection illusion, “the assumption that our own golden rule of objectivity works well for ourselves—but others’ rules don’t work for them. The result is a blind spot that can lead otherwise careful people to exempt themselves from rules of behavior they would rigorously apply to others.”
5 ways to tame bias
So, how do leaders avoid the thinking without thinking trap that the extrovert-preferring boss fell victim to?
Leaders can five things to minimize the impact of biased thinking. They can:
Be mindful of always listening to their gut. Quick decisions and first impressions can unconsciously be shaped by bias. Be curious and fact check before acting.
Involve more people in the policy- and decision-making process. The trade-off in time involved is balanced by the emergence of fuller, deeper, richer, and more inclusive outcomes because we’re considering a broader spectrum of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives.
Stop relying exclusively on memory—it isn’t as infallible, accurate, or impartial as most people think it is. Memory plays tricks on everyone. Biased impressions are folded into our memories.
Recognize that not every decision is best served by using narrow either/or thinking. Sometimes, the right answer is both/and. Biased thinking is often at the core of polarization.
Include contrarians on every team and listen to what they have to say. Their contributions in helping people see things from a different perspective are invaluable. They force us to inhabit a different way of thinking.
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts. ~Bertrand Russell
What methods have been successful for you in learning to mitigate the impacts of bias?
Isn’t there something incredibly magical, addictive, and seductive on lots of levels when someone says that to us?
Buoyed by success and probably a big chunk of ego, too, we want to do it again and again. Right? I know I sure did.
Then, along comes the person who resists our efforts. Someone who pushes just as hard as we do in presenting their ideas as the right ones.
So, we double down, confident that if we keep at them, someday we’ll prevail, and they’ll see things our way.
At least that’s how I used to see it.
After yet another disagreeable conversation with a determined resistor, I took a frustrated step back. Nothing was working, so I needed to see with beginner’s eyes.
As I thought back over my exchanges with this individual, I didn’t like what I saw. About myself. I’d come across as disrespectful and egotistical.
I used to think that changing people’s beliefs was part of being a leader who made a difference. I don’t think that way anymore and that’s a very liberating place to be.
Approaching life, love, and leadership like it’s an ice cream parlor offering at least 31 flavors—and maybe more—has made my life richer.
The journey to my liberation was difficult. Anger, tears, frustration, too much chocolate consumption, misguided persistence, self-righteousness, disagreeable words, and lost friends littered the path.
Losing friends was the worst. I liked those people. I missed the fun times with them, the sharing and how they made my life better because they were a “different flavor.” That’s something I didn’t realize until they were gone.
As much as I like anything chocolate, a steady diet of it would be unsatisfying. There’s no tingle of anticipation of something new. There’s no comfort zone growing aha moments. There’s no new thoughts that invite exploration of the unknown. That steady diet of just me and chocolate, while comforting and comfortable, isn’t making me a better person or helping me make a difference.
It took me too long to learn that making a difference depends on differences.
I had a lot to learn. I had to:
Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Stop trying to change someone’s beliefs and start acknowledging and respecting their right to have different views.
Go give respect to get respect.
Tolerate to be tolerated.
Let go of certainty to find fulfillment.
Concede that my blind spots and hot buttons were indications of my weaknesses, not my strengths.
Most complex problems have multiple solutions. To solve them, we have to learn to pause and consider the big picture and the context of the moment. On some days, focusing on results is the right thing to do; on other days, nurturing relationships is what moves things forward. Sometimes, it’s teamwork that carries us across the finish line; other times it’s the autonomy of the solitary contributor. Some days, the right answer is my way; and on others, it’s your way.
Making room in our heads and hearts for lots of “flavors” of life, love, and leadership makes us sometimes uncomfortable but, in the end, it makes us compassionate. Successful, too. Maybe not by the “who has the most toys” definition but certainly by the yardstick of having character.
Today, when someone criticizes another for their beliefs, I don’t pile on like I used to. Instead, I honor and respect their right to think and believe differently and hope that they’ll do the same for me.
While it’s still sometimes hard to do, I’ve finally learned to be the water.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong. ~Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher
People with different points of view, experiences, or attitudes move conversation and decision-making to a higher level. They aid in getting unconventional ideas and options noticed, comfort zones expanded, and results improved.
That’s the upside.
Some contrarians, though, bring work, ideas, and interaction to a complete halt.
The Urban Dictionary defines a contrarian as “someone who automatically tends to take the opposite point of view from the person to whom they’re speaking, or to disagree with society at large out of a sort of knee-jerk reflex.”
The trick to being a valuable contrarian versus being a pain-in-the-you-know-where-one is your orientation and attitude.
Are you being the contrarian because you have a “me” focus rather than a “we” one? Because you believe your opinion is always the right one? Because you love to argue just for the sake of arguing? Or, are you pushing for something important the rest of the group has failed to see?
When the Catholic Church determines whether an individual should become a saint, a person is assigned the role of devil’s advocate. It’s their job to poke holes in the evidence. Additionally, there’s also a “Promoter of Justice” whose role is to argue in favor of the facts.
What makes a contrarian valuable
Purposefully poking meaningful holes in a position or idea is priceless, invaluable, always needed. Being antagonistic just for the sport of it isn’t.
By design, there was a contrarian on nearly every team I lead. I wanted someone who was willing to shake up the status quo.
Their orientation and attitude had everything to do with whether their team mates were initially receptive when they shared a point of view.
Concepts introduced combatively or with an air of superiority were ignored or quickly dismissed. The disagreeable messenger killed his own idea.
Often they [contrarians] haven’t acquired the tactical skills of developing their ideas. They tend to blurt them out, making them hard to accept, or else they disagree with others in a clumsy way. ~Karl Albrecht, author
3 things good contrarians do
Pay attention to social graces. People instinctively pull back from comments laced with anger, bitterness, and frustration because they feel like they’re being attacked. Your idea may well be the right answer, but if your present it with contempt, expect a cool reception. Learn to introduce and frame your ideas with tact and diplomacy.
If I see you as different and I view you with suspicion, or at the best with cold neutrality, it is unlikely that I will feel kindly disposed toward you. If instead I look at you knowing we both belong to the human race, both have a similar nature, different experiences but the same roots and a common destiny, then it is probable I will feel openness, solidarity, empathy toward you. In another word, kindness. ~Piero Ferrucci, The Power of Kindness
Think more about we and less about me. Present your thoughts less in terms of how they benefit you and more in terms of how they benefit the team, organization, community, etc. Promoting the greater good is good; hogging the spotlight isn’t.
Scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy. ~Natalie Angier, writer
Keep sharing. Poking holes in existing thinking or advancing something totally new is what moves business, careers, and personal growth forward. Make your voice heard.
We have it in our power to change the world over. ~Thomas Paine, political activist
What tips do you have for being a contrarian with grace?