I was recently facilitating a session with a new board, helping align them with each other and with management and become fit for purpose. And as I was listening to their contributions and the reactions from management I could see that the newcomers, with all their fresh energy and enthusiasm, too often were unaware that some of what they were proposing was either happening already or had been shown not to be effective.
As the discussions progressed the directors graciously realised that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Such inaccurate perceptions aren’t unusual for recent arrivals on boards – nor, by the way, for many who have been around a long time. Plus of course, for those further away from the decision-making and other activities, armchair critics are smugly convinced they are more expert than the experts.
The answer, as I have mentioned before in these columns, is for leaders and others to ask more than tell, to listen openly, applying what Prof. Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry” – the title of his book on the subject. In his 2021 book, Think Again, another great professor of organisational behaviour, Adam Grant, also writes on this common phenomenon. I love how Grant helps us find our way in this fast-changing world, having already written here about his earlier book, Originals.
So now I offer some thoughts from Think Again – whose sub-title is The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. “Knowledge is power,” Grant affirms, adding “knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”
It’s logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence. This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness, with such over-confidence having become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Sadly, as I too have found, over-confident people are the ones least likely to seek guidance from others – in particular, their juniors – and they are the ones who will shun coaches or mentors.
At the other end of the spectrum, Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it’s only their confidence that is lacking. This can turn out to be helpful, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.
We have heard about the “confirmation bias” Grant mentions, the search for evidence that supports what we already believe, and he adds “desirability bias”, seeing what we did or didn’t want to see – as those who didn’t want to see Trump as President sought data to show a lower probability that he would be elected. Finally, there’s Grant’s “I’m not biased” bias, which speaks for itself.
To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. This requires us to think as scientists do, treating our views as mere hypotheses to be tested and reviewed, and so enabling us to remain agile. This mindset contrasts to the “preacher” in us, wedded to tightly-held sacred beliefs; the “prosecutor”, only out to see the flaws in others’ positions; and the “politician”, who merely lobbies for approval from potential supporters.
Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs, and often it is these beliefs that hold us back, as Spencer Johnson revealed in that brilliant fable Who Moved My Cheese and its wonderful follow-up, Out of the Maze. Strong justification, Grant advises, for nurturing healthy beliefs at as young an age as possible.
Awareness of all these impediments to and characteristics of quality thinking not only gets us to think about how we approach our own thinking but helps us influence the thinking of those around us – the subject of the second part of Think Again.
For each and every one of us, whether at the personal or family level, whether in our organisation or our community, we need to re-assess our thinking process so as to ensure we’re fit for purpose in these volatile times.
My dearest wish is that as our politicians think about Kenya beyond the 2022 election they too absorb the wisdom of Grant. But given that this appears highly unlikely, it is we the voters who should do so.