Leadership Development

To Learn, Stop Believing Everything You Think

Our knowledge has a shelf life. One best practice for continuous learning is to check your perspective.

This article is the second in a series focused on the need for continuous learning. Read Part 1, originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Chief Learning Officer.

Author and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith has done quite a bit of research on success and the implications it has on future outcomes. Would you believe that prior success can actually limit future success? It can if you’re not aware, humble and careful.

Think about your past work. No doubt you have been successful — maybe not 100 percent of the time with every single initiative, but certainly some things turned out as planned or even better. Based on that success, how would you rate or rank yourself compared to your peers?

According to Marshall’s research, 70 percent of people believe they’re in the top 10 percent of performers, 82 percent of people believe they’re in the top 20 percent, and 98.5 percent of people believe they’re in the top half. You don’t need to be a math whiz to know these numbers simply don’t work: They defy the law of averages. What’s on display here is simple overconfidence and inflated self-worth. It’s a highlight of ego and what Marshall refers to as a “success delusion.”

You may be familiar with the concept of overconfidence bias, often labeled the overconfidence effect. Psychologists Howard Raiffa and Marc Alpert have done much work studying this concept — what it is, how it’s created and the effects of having such a bias. Possibly the easiest way to define the overconfidence effect is by considering the difference between what people think they know and what they really know: That’s the overconfidence effect in action. We also may simply call it by a more common word: delusion!

Delusion can lead to stubbornness, which can prevent change — especially behavioral change — that can subsequently lead to averageness or even extinction. What was once a fact — your success — can be challenged or, even worse, proven obsolete relative to new knowledge and innovation truths.

Think about the leaders in your organization. Think about your own leadership. Are you a great boss, a great leader? Are you someone who meets regularly with your staff? Someone who listens intently? Do you do a good job of providing support and empowerment? Are you consistently present and available? Do you exemplify positive nonverbal behavior when you’re in meetings? Are you a polished speaker who presents in concise and easy-to-understand ways? Are you open to feedback and focused on getting it right more so than on being right?

Did you answer, “Yes, of course!” to each question?

The reality hidden in your response is this: Just because you think so doesn’t mean it’s true. It could be a delusion. You could suffer from overconfidence bias and, on occasion, probably do. So too do the other leaders (and the rest of the staff) in your company — and that can become a big problem.

We’re always going to think. That’s the way we’re made. Our brains are constantly processing and making sense of the world. But how we make sense of the world and of ourselves within it may not be true. Sometimes we can block our own path to success by creating stories that simply aren’t true relative to the facts, knowledge, innovation and capabilities of today. This can hold us back individually as well as collectively across our teams and companies.

It’s tough to gauge the accuracy of our thoughts and perspectives without measuring them against the perspectives of others, especially those who have different mindsets, experiences, expectations and ways of making sense of the world. Couple that with the reality that facts — those things we once knew to be true — are changing, and what we once thought was true may no longer be so. If we don’t accept that reality, we may focus on being right over making sure we get it right — whatever “it” is.

As you go about your work, constantly check your perspective against others’, ask others to check you and help them to do the same. Challenge overconfidence bias and legacy facts by appreciating the power of innovation to change facts over time and with new knowledge that is generating new facts faster than ever. Such humility can help us understand whether what we think is what we should believe or if we have it wrong because of an overconfidence effect, success delusion or simply not keeping pace with the Knowledge Doubling Curve.

Be humble in knowing there will be times when you’ll need to stop believing what you think because it’s simply not true.

Tim Rahschulte is former CLO of Evanta, current CEO at the Professional Development Academy and professor of business at George Fox University. His latest book is “My Best Advice: Proven Rules For Effective Leadership,” which he co-authored with Ryan Halley and Russ Martinelli. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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