As stated by Talmud, “We do not see things as they are; but as we are.” This doctrine from the eighth century speaks to our perceptions and questions our ability to understand people and situations accurately.
In a competitive and fluid corporate environment, executives make decisions based on their experiences and ability to navigate complex change situations. But many leaders fail to look through the lens of the opposing viewpoints and limit their decision quality by projecting only their own thoughts, insights and experiences into a situation without acknowledging alternative angles or beliefs. Strategic self-reflection can enable leaders to create a bridge between information and wisdom.
Executives rarely receive direct feedback, and some may develop a distorted vision of the corporate reality. They likely don’t test their ability to understand organizational behaviors. Consider the following scenario. It’s the last executive team meeting, and everyone agreed to implement a new process. Six months pass, and there is still resistance and limited progress on that process.
During the original meeting, heads nodded in agreement; the new process would streamline processes, but leaders may have missed organizational behavioral cues that indicate disagreement, covert resistance, or a misalignment of agendas.
Leaders should not be surprised at this common symptom of a failed change management attempt. Understanding organizational behaviors is a nebulous task. Employees can see, interpret and understand situations differently even when everyone experienced the same event. Many things influence a person’s perception and how they experience the world around them, such as personal experiences, memories and beliefs. These experiences help formulate how we interpret external stimuli, which develops our personality, perceptions and viewpoints.
Reflection practice is a deliberate pause to assume an open perspective and to allow for higher-level thinking processes. To implement strategic reflection as a leadership tool, one must tap in the metacognition: how we monitor and control our own reasoning processes, which can be described as thinking about our thinking. By using metacognition constructs, executives can learn more about how they project perceptions, assumptions and biases, and frequently misread people and situations.
People normally feel they are aware of their surroundings, but neuroscience findings show they may only aware of those parts of their world that fall into their focus of attention. They may not even realize how much information they’re missing.
Cognitive neuroscience may offer some insight into how leaders can understand the brain and behaviors better to increase awareness. Daniel J. Simons, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, said the brain can play tricks on a person’s interpretation of events and situations as two theories; change blindness and inattentional blindness, which also may confuse perceptions of a situation.
Change blindness is a perceptual experience that occurs when a change in a visual stimulus is introduced and the observer does not notice it. Leaders may experience this when shown two almost identical images and are tasked with finding the small differences between the images. The initial perception is that the two images are identical, but it is only with concentrated effort that people see the small differences. Recall the executive meeting, during the intense or even mundane meeting dynamics. Were leaders paying attention to the organizational behaviors that make up the DNA of the team or making the effort to understand the behaviors in the room?
Inattentional blindness, discovered by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock in 1992 at MIT, describes the phenomenon where an individual cannot comprehend all the details in a situation and fails to see unexpected changes. In reality, people rarely see all of their reality. So if the brain and perceptions are fooling people, how do leaders gain back the capacity to understand others’ behaviors and situations to connect with teams to drive corporate agendas?
The brain and perceptions are stuck in a vacuum without outside stimulus to help bring awareness of situation and environment. Leaders need to tap into their connections and network to cross analyze multiple viewpoints to deepen collective understanding. The Strategic Self Reflection framework can help. The framework is based on asking critical questions using self, team, and the system as a whole.
For executive self-reflection, the questions could include:
- What sorts of behaviors did you display during the meeting?
- How did you positively or negatively influence the outcome?
- What assumptions did you make?
For team reflection, the questions could include:
- Who was or not involved in the project that may be affecting the outcome?
- Who had emotive displays? And what triggered it?
- Who gains or loses something in the decision?
- What other hidden issues are connected to this decision?
For reflection on the system as a whole, the questions could include:
- How was the issue tackled?
- What tools and techniques were applied, if any?
- What planning was undertaken?
- Was design thinking or brainstorming encouraged? If not, why?
- How were decisions made? Unilaterally or collaboratively?
Over time, an executive should be able to self-analyze quickly, in the moment, to build the ability to cope with frustrations and the unexpected with more awareness, analysis of reactions and understanding to explore the best scenarios for a company. The purpose of strategic self-reflection helps executives achieve decision quality in the workplace by understanding multiple viewpoints, enabling deeper understanding of a situation with a higher level of thinking.
What’s your quality of awareness?
Debbie Sutherland is an organizational development executive working in the United Arab Emirates. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed under: Leadership DevelopmentTagged with: self-reflection