Leaders rely on people at all levels to provide essential contributions to company decisions. Yet real people have flaws. Information and decisions can get filtered, even in good faith ways, on their way through the company power structure to leaders. Understanding this human phenomenon can help leaders avoid its pitfalls.
Fear and survival
Scientists refer to survival as the organizing principle of the brain. When our brain perceives a threat to survival, it triggers a fear reaction. This reaction gave primitive humans a better chance of staying alive. Humans who lived on passed these traits to future generations.
Although the fear reaction is essential to our survival, in modern humans it can also be disruptive. That’s because our brain triggers a mostly unconscious reaction to its perception of threats. Under this condition, the brain loses its ability to correctly interpret subtle clues from the environment, reverts to familiar behaviors, loses some of its ability to perceive relationships and patterns, and tends to overreact in a phobic way.
The following are some examples.
? Fairness: Fairness matters to humans, so the brain perceives unfairness as a threat. It can be so powerful that some people are willing to fight or die for causes involving justice, fairness and equality. When this occurs in the workplace, employees may unknowingly reject new facts or select and use data in a self-serving way in order to “restore fairness.”
? Ambiguity: When our brain perceives uncertainty or confusion, the fear reaction is aroused. It’s like having your computer freeze. Until it’s resolved, it’s difficult to focus on other things. Uncertainty registers as something that must be corrected and people may see patterns in random data where none exist or underestimate their own shortcomings as the brain attempts to “feel comfortable again.”
? Control: The degree of perceived control determines if a fear reaction will be triggered. For example, not being able to exercise routine decisions without perceived overinvolvement of a supervisor can easily generate fear. Then we may unknowingly defend decisions made solely on snap judgments or subconsciously conform our thinking to that of the group. It can develop into a problem that impacts creativity and innovation.
? Trust: The quality of decisions depends on healthy relationships. In the brain, each time we interact, we unconsciously make a quick friend-or-foe distinction depending on the context. When the person is perceived as competition, survival circuits may be triggered. Spinning and/or withholding information from the next level of management are a few of the possible results.
? Social status: We are biologically predisposed to threats to our social status in the workplace as part of our survival programming. As a result, supervisors may have the nonconscious tendency to marginalize people who disagree with them. Similarly, people may avoid disrupting group beliefs if it serves to improve their social status.
As you can see, each day at work is filled with moments of perceived survival. When reactions occur, people are just not in touch with their thinking. It can unknowingly affect fact gathering, analysis, insights, judgments, decisions and performance. Personal strategies may be obscure and not apparent even to those who are using them.
Using this insight to improve results requires two things: No. 1, it requires employees to understand how human tendencies can impact their decisions, and No. 2, it requires management to set the tone by encouraging objective self-assessment of these nonconscious filters and candid communications throughout the organization.
Most important decisions rely on at least some subjective input by humans. To improve performance, leaders must take responsibility for creating an organization that is in touch with its thinking. Only then can we step out of the thousands of years of collective human conditioning and improve the quality of our decisions. <<
Larry J. Bloom spent 30-plus years helping grow a small family business to more than $700 million in revenue. He is a consultant, the author of “The Cure for Corporate Stupidity: Avoid the Mind-Bugs that Cause Smart People to Make Bad Decisions,” and the owner of a start-up media and software company that promotes better thinking. For more information, visit www.curecorporatestupidity.