This is the third article in the Deadly Interpersonal Leadership Sins series, covering Sin #5: Oversimplifying, making assumptions, and jumping to conclusions about situations and intentions.
We’re in a fast moving business world where, as leaders, we often have to make decisions with far less information than we would like. Indeed many people rise to positions of leadership precisely because they have the ability to make decisions and move forward with minimal information.
Unfortunately any strength over applied or used without thought can become a weakness. Here’s a story to illustrate:
Jumping to conclusions about others
A few years ago I was working with an executive team in an organization where there was quite a bit of stress – some because of change in their industry and some because of conflict on the team. Most of the internal conflict was between the CEO and the new COO, Jim. This wasn’t surprising as Jim was brought in by the CEO to shake up the team, whom he felt was getting too comfortable and complacent.
During a weekly one-on-one discussion, I asked the CEO about his COO.
“Jim? One word: Amazing. His work ethic and drive are unparalleled. The guy really knows his stuff, and always seems to have experience that applies to the situation we’re facing. Yet there’s one thing…” The CEO’s gaze moved over to the chair where Jim sat during staff meetings.
“What’s that?” I asked. The CEO hesitated slightly, measuring his words to make sure they were both accurate and respectful.
“Well, Jim has a tendency to hear or see a few bits of information from people who don’t have access to the bigger picture, and then he draws a much bigger conclusion and starts running with it. When he eventually shares it with me, I can see how given only that information the conclusion is understandable, yet then I have to spend time providing Jim other information to help round out the real picture. It’s funny…”
He smiled wistfully, and then continued.
“When I finish my explanation Jim usually says ‘Sounds good’ and we move on. But I often get the feeling that he doesn’t really agree and is patronizing me. I don’t want to sound critical – it’s just a challenge I’m going to have to work through.”
Later that day I met with Jim for a project update. As we discussed progress, Jim looked like he’d rather be doing something else – until we got to a project decision where Jim didn’t agree with the CEO.
“You know, I can’t believe he’s still the CEO!” suddenly burst forth. “The guy is so stuck in the past – I probably don’t have to tell you what the real problem is around here. Whenever I bring problems to him he goes into his ‘here’s what’s really happening, Jim’ mode and just covers things up. There’s no way that he’s going to be able to take this organization where it needs to go. I mean, you’ve got to see this too?” Jim looked at me for confirmation.
The intensity of Jim’s feelings surprised me – it was almost like a relief valve blowing on a pressure cooker. I looked Jim right in the eyes and said “You and the CEO are seeing things differently – and I think this organization’s success depends on the ability of both of you to work together towards solutions that help us safely navigate the rocky waters we’re in.” As these words sunk in, I could see Jim struggling between seeing my point and his assumptions about how the CEO was incapable.
“Besides, he can’t be completely incompetent.” I said with a smile. “He brought you in, didn’t he?”
The dangerous power of self-reinforcing stories
As humans, we tell ourselves stories to assign meaning to the things that are happening around us. Generally this is a good thing as it gives us the ability to live lives full of purpose.
The challenge is that the stories we tell ourselves reinforce themselves without us even knowing it – information that doesn’t match with our conclusion is rejected and that which does match strengthens our belief that we are right.
In the story above, Jim had three challenges:
- He was oversimplifying situations and jumping to conclusions about the organization
- His self-reinforcing stories caused him to reject additional information and influence from the CEO
- His belief in the superiority of his position was unconsciously affecting his relationship with the CEO.
The rest of the story: we worked together for two years and the company more than tripled in revenue and personnel. Yet the relationship between Jim and the CEO was always a bit more tension-filled than either of them liked, so they parted amiably and are doing well in their respective companies.
Actions you can take today
- Get your own stories out of the way. Think about a situation where you and another person at work are in conflict. Take a sheet of paper and make three columns - What’s Happening, My Story, and Their Story. Write down What’s Happening as factually as possible, then add your Story about why in the next column. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and write what Their Story might be in the last column. Bonus points if you start seeing points of commonality – perhaps even that each of you are telling yourselves the same story about the other!
- When you feel strong emotion, validate your assumptions. The next time you have a surge of righteous indignation about someone’s bad behavior and are about to “make it right”, pause ever so briefly and focus on the assumption you’re making about the other person’s intentions. Are you certain that there isn’t another reason for the behavior you are seeing? If there is a possibility of error, ask an open question about that assumption, such as “What are you hoping to accomplish by [behavior]?” Bonus points if the conversation you have truly explores the other person’s point of view before you share your own.