A guest post by Charlie Mounter, who is taking part in the #testingtimes campaign.

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the Dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head

‘White Rabbit’, Jefferson Airplane

Especially in times of transition and uncertainty, it’s important to experiment and learn from others. But this can be full of hazards and distortions. With or without the help of C20H25N3O.

In taking the Through the Corporate Looking Glass test, I learned that I could often empathise with CEOs but lacked some of their knowledge and approaches. This isn’t a big surprise. I don’t always find global business news very easy to dip into, and much of it lacks meaning without a context in which I can apply it. 

I need a stake, a way to relate to the information others consume in order to see things from their perspective. To understand someone, I have to stop relying on my own models of understanding the world and learn strange new interpretations. This takes deliberate effort. We see things as we are.

How can we see through another’s eyes? It’s easy to assume we know what someone means, but we overestimate how much we understand from facial expressions, tone or body language (it’s called the illusion of transparency). On top of that, most people speak – at least in the UK — indirectly, and it can be hard to gather others’ meanings, especially on email, audio or video calls.

We all apply heuristics when processing information. Cognitive shortcuts with potentially alarming consequences include: 

1) complexity bias, or preferring difficult solutions to simple ones, which can lead us to concoct conspiracy theories to cover our fears and explain gaps in our knowledge; 

2) self-serving bias, which has us own our successes but disown our failures; and 

3) fundamental attribution error, when we give too much weight to personality or disposition and not enough to situation or context in judging a person’s behaviour. 

Perhaps the worst is the Abilene paradox, when a group makes a collective decision that none of its individual members believe in! But there are some ways we can try to overcome such automatic inclinations.

In a nutshell, we have to step back and be rigorous. Our ability to understand others will always be partial, but we can try to be explicit, pay attention and ask for clarification. In the process, we must resist pasting over strangeness and unfamiliarity with our own beliefs or stories, because those carry cognitive biases. Knowledge builds slowly – it’s a long game. The point of collecting different perspectives is to identify common interests we can meet and build upon. Successful CEOs and senior leaders triage where to focus their energy, just as medics do.

Taking part in this, the fifth challenge of the #testingtimes campaign – alongside a bit of introspection and lots of walking – reminded me:

1) that irrational thoughts will surface to fill what lies beyond our knowledge;

2) to focus on improving what matters most rather than dwelling on what doesn’t; 

3) and to thank our contingency plans (you had some, right?). 

It’s an adventure to learn from those who see life differently from you, but when we ‘Go ask Alice’ we need to keep our wits about us. On the other hand, there are those who ask this question…. Who is Alice?

If you’re interested in learning more about cognitive biases, here’s a primer in the form of a spectacular chart which aggregates many of them into types.

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