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The 7 Deadly Sins That Brought Down Liz Truss in 7 Weeks

Judgement error is predictable and controllable.

Key points

  • When you hold a position of power, mistakes are more visible and scrutinized. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss led in a glaring spotlight.
  • With hindsight and time, you can see how bias impacts others' misjudgements, and avoid repeating the same error.
  • Everyone makes mistakes. Long-term success is about how you handle them — that will ultimately define your legacy, and others' lives.
Unsplash/Hugh L Casanova
Source: Unsplash/Hugh L Casanova

Human error is predictable. But what's unpredictable is the pervasiveness of misjudgment, despite an army of advisors at your disposal.

When Liz Truss completed a 49-day term as the shortest-serving British Prime Minister, it was a bittersweet experience for her — in reality, more bitter than sweet. With hindsight and perspective, lessons can be learned from the psychology of Trussonomics because human error is both predictable and controllable.

As a behavioural scientist and board advisor, I identify seven contributing causes.

1. Narrow Focus: "Where's the Target?"

Truss's inaugural speech reflected a commitment to growth, "I will take action…to make this happen…I am determined to deliver."

And therein lay the problem. Perspective gets annihilated when you're over-focused on set goals. With Thatcherite conviction, Truss zoned into tax cuts and missed the broader mandate — leading a distraught 67 billion citizens. Researchers term this bias narrow focus.

Timing contributed. Queen Elizabeth had passed, the nation was in mourning, and the first 100 days were ticking by. Rushing to communicate without fully grasping policy implications or securing buy-in was a rookie error. Many myopic leaders lose their way. Too often, what's needed to deliver outcomes can cloud the very nuance that's needed to deliver those outcomes.

2. False Consensus Effect: "Others Want What I Want."

In a sale, how often do you scurry, thinking everyone wants that same item you want? Lee Ross and Stanford researchers coined this disposition the False Consensus Effect. You wrongly think everyone agrees with you.

You might think your ideas, policies, and strategies possess more validity than reality suggests, especially when they're amplified by fawning employees, acolytes, or citizens.

Truss rewarded Tory campaign supporters rather than recruiting top talent. Dissent helps you rebalance your perspective. An echo of admirers can lead to over-optimistic decisions and misplaced confidence. In this case, market instability, currency sinking, and a cringeworthy U-turn followed.

3. Egotism: "I'm Right."

Egotists self-reveal by extensively using "I" rather than "we."

Note Truss's keynote address. "I am confident that together we can ride out the storm." Or "I am determined to get Britain moving…. I am driven in this mission…."

Despite aspiring to counter the cost-of-living crisis, radical economic policies were explained as "too far and too fast." I interpret this as, "My policy isn't wrong; you just weren't ready."

Hints of arrogance leaked into the farewell speech. Prefaced by a lap of honor, she urged the nation to consider a 'bold future,' suggesting "things are difficult …. because we do not dare," quoting Roman philosopher Seneca.

Does this mean the problem isn't my ill-conceived politics but your courage? As Oxford classicist Mary Beard tweeted, "I wonder if our outgoing prime minister read the rest of the Letter of Seneca … who warned to "be careful of ambition!"

4. Confirmation Bias: "I've Got Supporting Facts."

A pervasive bias that cripples objectivity is seeking confirmatory views, reinforcing existing beliefs. Confirmation bias is a lethal decision derailer that obliterates critical thinking.

Context mattered. Britain 2022 was colored by a Ukraine-induced, inflationary post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis. Regardless of intentions, the optics of giving to the rich and neglecting the poor were horrendous and blindsided ambition.

The prevalence of ego combined with confirmation bias can compromise critical thinking, unless managed

5. Illusion of Invulnerability: "No one Can Touch Me."

Once appointed, it's easy to feel secure in a role. That's when the illusion of invulnerability sets in. The nation needed stability after political upheaval and the monarch's passing. With such exposure, it was a rare opportunity to acquire instant gravitas. While one leader lasted 70 years, she looked unlikely to last 70 days. You think you're bulletproof.

It was unthinkable that the fourth Prime Minister in six years would be removed — until it was inconceivable they wouldn't. Did Truss feel immune? Invulnerability makes us underweight risk. Yet Boards frequently exercise fiduciary obligation to remove CEOs.

On day one, Twitter owner Elon Musk fired his.

6. Dunning-Kruger Effect: "What Errors?"

With greater power, the greater the risk of blindness to shortcomings, as validated by psychologists Dunning and Kruger. Rishi Sunak criticized Truss policies as "fantasy economics." Even when the International Monetary Fund and a US President scorned, Truss was doggedly loyal to a failing cause, if less loyal to her people, firing the Chancellor and home secretary.

A learning curve is inevitable in a new role, but when your tenure is compared to the lifespan of lettuce and popularity sinks lower than the incumbent you're replacing, it's time to course correct, not dig in your hells. We want leaders to look and sound like leaders. The public accepts messengers perceived as credible, familiar, and likable.

But Truss failed Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy's leadership test of competence and warmth, lacking essential gravitas.

7. Ostrich Effect: "This Isn't Happening."

In the ostrich effect, we deny bad news. Science finds exposure to even three minutes of negative news leads to a 27% higher probability of a bad day. It must have been hard to hear the nightmare level of abject criticism received.

Eventually, the forced apology, "I do want to accept responsibility and say sorry for the mistakes that have been made." For many, it was late, hollow, and defensive, like the refrain, "I've been clear that I'm sorry...." Ouch.

Finally, perceived acceptance upon resigning. "I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected."

Now she can move on.

With the Benefit of Perspective

After 25 years of Westminster ladder-climbing, it was indeed "a great honor" to serve one's country but unfortunately, one which left a second-rate legacy.

Many face a similar risk in ignoring the impacts of these potential decision-killers.

Like the seven deadly sins, one unconscious bias can crater a career, and a combination can exert a lethal effect. Mere awareness may not prevent the inevitable, but it's a start, and it certainly averts the inevitable.

Everyone makes mistakes. How you handle them defines you. The biggest mistake Truss can now make is to let this define the rest of her life.

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