Have you ever overreacted to a situation, taken something personally when it was not really meant that way, misinterpreted the tone of an email or text, or judged someone unfairly? Of course, we all have. It is the nature of the mind. We are constantly appraising our environment, and we often get it wrong. This is what we do: We experience through our senses a person, a situation or an event. In an instant, we project our own mental models — that is, the lens through which we frame our world, which is often based on our past experiences, our fears or our background — onto that person, situation or event. The result is that we interpret, judge and respond to things incorrectly, and sometimes these cognitive errors can have very painful consequences. Although this subjectivity impacts all aspects of our lives, it can be especially destructive at work. My inherent subjectivty cost me a million dollars.
Losing a million dollars taught me a valuable lesson: In order to be successful and happy, we must learn to be more objective. The reality is that the demands on today’s managers are greater than ever before. Massive amounts of data are available to analyze. Changes in market forces are less predictable and more complex. Yet business leaders are expected to make better decisions, faster, and implement those decisions on accelerated timelines. The problem is that when the pressure to perform intensifies, managers tend to draw on their past experiences and assumptions, which clouds their ability to see things as they are and prevents them from responding to changing dynamics in an unbiased or objective manner. Deadlines are missed, customers are lost, internal relationships become strained, reputations suffer, promotional opportunities diminish and overall health and well-being suffer. Moreover, our desire to succeed is often so strong that, under these intense circumstances, our insecurities and our limiting and unproductive mental models tend to get in our way, creating a lot of stress and causing us to react in ways that we may regret.
Here is a true story, with name and identifying features altered to protect privacy, of how the lack of objectivity can play out at work.
Suzanne, a 35-year-old senior analyst, was tasked with analyzing and evaluating the performance of a new, high-profile initiative for a twelve-month period. At the end of the year, Suzanne was to present her findings to the senior leadership team and make her recommendations for either a go or no-go decision. Much was at stake for the company and for her. In her mind, if she performed well and made the right recommendation, she thought she might be considered for the promotion she wanted.
Suzanne was a meticulous analyst and a bit of a perfectionist who liked to control things. Given the high stakes, she painstakingly established a rigorous process for data gathering and analysis. As the project came to a close, she was confident that she had collected enough data to make an objective decision to present to the leadership team. But, all of a sudden, in the presentation, instead of hearing congratulations for a job well done, she faced a series of questions from Tim, the primary project lead. Tim was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the project and clearly had quite a different perspective on it. Soon everyone could see that the project team refuted Suzanne’s findings. Her reaction was less than objective, to say the least. She describes her reaction this way:
“I was rude. I bluntly and forcefully tried to defend my position. I felt that the barrage of questions was targeted at me and that my analysis was being personally attacked. At times, I wasn’t even listening or attempting to understand the real issues. I responded as if I was the sole authority who had the facts needed to make the decision. I became more defensive and visibly angered and just kept stating that my analysis was accurate.”
Suzanne admits that her less than objective reactions had negative consequences. In addition to feeling embarrassed and ashamed of her behavior, she lost the respect of many of her colleagues. In addition, the senior leadership team was disappointed because they could not make a clear decision, and they did not want to invest more time. Moreover, her relationship with Tim was strained from that point forward. The incident was written up in her performance evaluation that year, and ultimately, her reaction cost her the promotion she had hope for.
Does this sound like a situation that you can relate to in some way? How often do you need to be right? How often are you argumentative in order to defend your position? How often do you belittle others for their points of view if their views are different from your own? These are just a few ways that our inherent subjectivity can get in our way at work.
To be an effective leader requires greater objectivity. This means seeing and accepting things as they are and responding thoughtfully, deliberately and effectively to the opportunities and challenges of our lives. To do this, however, we first have to understand our mental models — our deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world works and how things ought to be. The mind forms patterns or models that define our sense of reality, that lead us to expect certain results, that give meaning to events and that predispose us to behave in certain ways. We think and act through our mental models. What we fundamentally believe about ourselves, what we believe is true about the world and what we have decided is important to us help determine what our experiences will be. The question then becomes, what are your leadership mental models, and do they support you in being effective, or do they undermine your ability to achieve your goals?
As an objective leader, you can develop the ability to question the mental models through which you judge situations, make decisions and take action. As an objective leader, you can gain the self-awareness to identify and transform limiting and unproductive mental models that impair your ability to effectively evaluate and respond to daily challenges. Because of the brain's neuroplasticity, its capacity to change in response to new information, you can reframe your view of the world, your work and yourself and develop new ways of thinking and acting that help you deal with the complex issues you face each day. And finally, as an objective leader, you can lead your team or organization in understanding the current organizational mental models and guide the development of more effective models including the operating principles, processes and systems required to support them.
The "Psychology Today Objective Leader Blog" will draw from my new book, "The Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are." The book is based on a curriculum I developed and have been teaching to Babson College graduate students and to corporate executives in leadership development and organizational development programs through Babson Executive Education.
My goal for this blog is to present a Framework for Objectivity that will help you develop a core competency in objectivity. Specifically, this blog will help you be more objective in the moment, teach you how to identify and transform limiting and unproductive mental models and empower you to create new possibilities for your life. For example, we will deconstruct situations like Suzanne’s and determine how she might have responded more objectively? We will uncover the potential mental models that caused her to react this way and identify more productive ways she could frame her world that can contribute to her success at work. In addition, we will look at organizational challenges and change initiatives and highlight opportunities to transform your organization with the Framework for Objectivity
Can you think of a situation lately where you were less than objective? Let’s start the conversation!