I have just returned from the US where I was running two leadership courses at Wisconsin University. I left on the day Donald J Trump was declared the 45th President of the United States. Many of the people I met were in shock. All predictions were that he didn't really have a chance. It was assumed that he had alienated too large a percentage of the electorate - women, Hispanics and even Republicans.
So why did the forecasters get it so wrong? The error in our thinking is to frame a complex situation in black and white terms. If we apply logical, but binary thinking, we would conclude that none of those people in the groups he had insulted, would vote for him. Similar errors in prediction were made in the United Kingdom with Brexit.
So what lessons can we learn to apply to our own leadership, to avoid the flawed cognitive reasoning distortion of black and white thinking?
1. Stop looking for right and wrong decisions. In mathematical equations there is a right answer. In management, complex business problems seldom have a right answer - there are just less-wrong options. A good decision often has more positives, and less negatives when judged in the light of a successful outcome, but it doesn't make the rejected option wrong. The harsh reality is a so-called right decision may have achieved the desired outcome through luck. Decisions can only be judged as right and wrong in hindsight, therefore at the time they are made it's more helpful to consider them viable working options than the right decision. Scott McNealy, co-founder of SUN Microsystems said " I am less worried about “making the right decision” and spend much more time and energy ensuring that any decision I make turns out right".
2, Bosses are not good or bad. They are complex human beings who have strengths and weaknesses and many of these traits impact a far wider audience than just us, or our team. The problem is once we apply black and white filters to people we selectively pick data points that support our polarised belief. By thinking in shades of grey we can more objectively evaluate our boss's behaviour and work together more effectively towards good business outcomes.
3. If we are not right about something it is really, really OK. In other words let's stop trying to justify how right we are and welcome insights that we might be wrong. Engineers or other analytical thinkers such as accountants, really struggle with accepting this fact and therefore are often very defensive and closed to constructive feedback. It is hard to logically accept you may be wrong as the moment you do it, you become right about the fact you were previously wrong. A better alternative is to become very comfortable accepting that the current belief and set of opinions you have may well be wrong. This allows you to be open to any new insights or information that may lead to you changing your mind about something. Being more open minded will make you a more effective leader as you will continually learn and grow.
As I conclude, I have to admit to having fallen prey to black and white thinking in my pessimistic opinions expressed to friends and family about recent world events, and I promise to do more to keep an open mind and not judge a zebra as black or white.