Let It Go – You Are Only Human


The human mind is a socially constructed faculty that is prone to fallacies and gaps in judgment.  This has been proven repeatedly in arenas such as behavioral economics, social and behavioral psychology.  However, these concepts, so elegantly outlined in Michael Lewis latest gem The Undoing Project, are often not embedded in organizational leadership development programs.  Many of these programs assume a fully rational mind with the ability to process information and make optimal decisions so long as the information is correct and the leader making the decisions has taken the time to discover their own fallacies and worked out a developmental plan.  However what many of these theories and experts often ignore is that the human mind under stress cannot self-diagnose mental gaps and narratives that are built into its very foundation.  What is necessary is for others who can take on an observer and consultative role to challenge the assumptions of the leader and point out fallacies and gaps in their thinking.

After a series of fatal mishaps related to pilot error, Delta and United Airlines both changed the culture of the cockpit from a command and control center where the more senior lead pilot would call all of the shots to one where the rest of the crew would have every right to challenge and point out mistakes and gaps in their colleague’s thinking.

The same model has now been adopted in numerous hospitals where experienced nurses are encouraged to speak up when they notice a surgeon about to make a poor decision in the surgery room or a doctor prescribing the wrong medicine or dosage.

In many of the organizations where I work, and across the leadership literature, there is scant attention to the neurological limitations of the mind related to decision making.  On the contrary, they focus on providing better information to the leader, identifying their areas of development and developing a plan to systematically address these areas by having the leader take accountability and simply change their mindset and behaviors.  There is no doubt that these are all credible and useful activities which do address some of the challenges that organizations are facing to optimize leader decision making.  However, the human brain cannot be entrusted to make the correct judgment in all instances and left on its own will make errors.

Many organizations have policies and procedures that assume those at the higher end of the food chain make the best decisions; they are rewarded as such and therefore should not be challenged.  It is the rare culture such as Google that actively incentivizes its rank and file to challenge leaders at all levels to ensure the best possible decisions.

Imagine an equivalent scenario to the airline’s cockpit where at board or management meetings there are colleagues assigned specifically to play the role of the challenger and to look for decisions that are based on socially and emotionally constructed narratives the leader carries.  For example the leader thinking and saying, “everybody is using their sales force to say a few things that have not been completely validated and if we don’t do it we will be left behind…” or “if we spend a lot of time and money fixing the safety and manufacturing issues in the plant we are not going to hit the numbers.” These conversations are happening and they are often not challenged if posited by a senior leader, especially one with an abundance of ego and combativeness.  And of course, the consequences can be disastrous as evidenced by the Volkswagen air pollution emission fiasco.

An important area of leadership development is to enable “challengers” with the skills and cognitive and emotional quotients to perform their work effectively.  The change in the aircraft cockpit culture did not occur by accident.  It took work to change the mindset of the lead pilots to listen and not let their ego overrule observations that mitigate the natural errors their mind makes.  Equally, it took systematic work to equip the co-pilots and navigators to challenge in ways that are effective and timely.  To be able to elevate from the situation to observe it less emotionally, more objectively, and with less stress and anxiety.  The challengers can bring their own biases into the situation and therefore need to be trained to recognize these narratives and interpretation to assume an unbiased role.

Lewis M. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, 2017.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. When was the last time you were publically challenged? How did you react to it?
  2. What did you learn from that experience?
  3. How would you advise your children or family in this regard? Would you encourage them to be challenge seekers? Why or why not?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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