Are You Willing to Discard Long-Held Beliefs and Understanding? - Michelle Gibbings

Are You Willing to Discard Long-Held Beliefs and Understanding?

A crucial aspect of having a long and successful career is continuous learning. Learning new skills is one thing, but what do you do when the learning requires you to discard long-held beliefs, data or an understanding of how things are?

Throughout our lives, we amass pieces of information and data, forming knowledge, views, and beliefs. This might be from reading books, having a conversation, or watching a TV show. If the information is positioned as real and backed up with research and data, we can take it to be true without rigorous investigation.

This is particularly the case when stories are told and retold in multiple locations.

A perfect example.

You might have heard of the concept of the blue zone. It’s research that suggests there are five locations around the world where people have extraordinarily long lives: Ikaria (Greece), Loma Linda (California), Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan) and Nicoya (Costa Rica). The people living in these areas supposedly undertake specific activities that support their longer-than-average lifespans. For example, eat little meat, undertake natural exercise, and have connection and purpose.

Indeed, there are specific books about the blue zone, and the concept is also referenced in many other books.

When I first read about the idea, I found it compelling and fascinating. Excellent, I thought, here’s good data on things I need to consider to have a long and healthy life.

However, a recent Freakonomics podcast revealed that the blue zones might not be all they purport to be.

Indeed, Oxford academic Dr Saul Newman has, piece by piece, dismantled the blue zone theory. In his research, he outlines other reasons for the longer life span—fraud and errors.

He writes, “Finally, the designated ‘blue zones’ of Sardinia, Okinawa, and Ikaria corresponded to regions with low incomes, low literacy, high crime rate and short life expectancy relative to their national average. As such, relative poverty and short lifespan constitute unexpected predictors of centenarian and supercentenarian status and support a primary role of fraud and error in generating remarkable human age records.”

So, who do I believe, what I want to be true or what might be true, or is the answer somewhere in between?

Of course, the point of this introduction isn’t to answer that specific question.

Instead, it’s to get you thinking about how ready and willing you are to change your mind.

Because in a working world where the adage ‘knowledge is power’ holds significant weight, what if that knowledge is the problem?

Understand Your Dissonance
Confronting information that contradicts long-held beliefs or established practices can be both disorienting and enlightening. But it’s hard to do because our brains often resist change.

When confronted with data that challenges existing beliefs or practices, we can experience cognitive dissonance—a discomfort arising from holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.

Psychologist Leon Festinger posited that when faced with such dissonance, individuals are motivated to reduce it by altering beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours to restore consistency.

For example, cognitive dissonance can arise at work in the context of decision-making. New data emerges that can undermine a strategy or business model that leaders have invested in or championed. Do the leaders accept that new data or keep going in the already agreed direction? In confronting this dilemma, the impact is not merely psychological but has implications for the organisation and team’s agility and adaptability in the face of external and internal forces driving change.

There is good news, however, because while this cognitive dissonance can be unsettling, it also presents an opportunity for intellectual growth and development.

So, how do you best do that?

Embrace Intellectual Humility
Firstly, acknowledge the discomfort that comes with contradictory information. Accept that cognitive dissonance is a natural human reaction.

As part of this step, relish the evolution of knowledge and look for the new and valuable insights that the new data can provide. For this to happen, you’ll want to cultivate intellectual humility, where questioning your assumptions is embraced rather than shunned.

Research by Professor Philip Tetlock and writer, Dan Gardner encourages leaders to adopt a ‘fox’ mindset, where you are open to diverse viewpoints and constantly reassess your assumptions, in contrast to a rigid ‘hedgehog’ mindset where you cling to singular, entrenched beliefs.

Assess the New Information
Before discarding your existing beliefs, take time to assess the new information. Examine the source of the information, the methodology used to gather it, and the credibility of the data: scrutinise sources, methodologies, and potential biases.

At this point, it will help to seek diverse perspectives. Engage in discussions with colleagues who have different viewpoints. Find ways to examine the issue so that you go beyond what’s obvious and uncover the evidence that challenges your assumptions and even conventional wisdom.

Reflect on Your Beliefs
Next, reflect on why you hold your current belief.

Is it based on solid evidence, or is it more of a personal bias or assumption? What would it mean for you (and others) if you changed that belief or altered your approach?

Then, challenge yourself. If the new information is credible and compelling, be willing to change your mind. This shift is not a sign of weakness but of intellectual maturity.

As Economist John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.”

Encourage Constructive Disagreement
Teams that challenge each other’s assumptions often produce more robust solutions and strategies and are more progressive.

So, it helps if you foster a culture where your team members can play an active role. You want a culture of curiosity where respectful debate and constructive disagreement are valued.

Also, consider where to use iterative decision-making processes that allow for course corrections based on new information.

Find Your Path to Progress
Every encounter with contradictory information is a learning opportunity. While it’s hard and takes work, it challenges our critical thinking skills and pushes us to grow intellectually.

Remember, the path to progress lies not in clinging to the familiar but embracing the unknown with intellectual rigour and courage.

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