Over the weekend, Craig, Barney and I went for our usual walk, but this time instead of turning right, we turned left. That simple change in our routine sparked surprising results.
We found a whole new area to explore (see picture below) – never realising that this gorgeous part of the world was right in our (almost) backyard. Despite the fact that we’d been living in this area for many years.
It got me thinking about the many things in life we don’t see. Either because we are tired, too busy, stuck in a routine or perhaps we just don’t want to see it.
While in our situation what we had missed seeing was a beautiful part of our local community, often what we miss is more significant and can have far bigger consequences.
When we stop looking around us and being curious, we can fail to see things that matter, along with discoveries that can shift our perspective and elevate our understanding.
Brain likes familiarity
Our brains are pattern recognition machines, which means they like routine. So much so that the decisions we make aren’t made on facts. They are made on assumptions, feelings and gut reactions.
If you want to read more on this Regina Pally’s, The Predicting Brain, is worth reading.
The pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that’s involved in thinking, analysing and reasoning, gets tired easily.
Consequently, the brain, very cleverly, has found a way of conserving energy. It takes short-cuts. A mental short-cut is known as a heuristic. The brain uses heuristics to make big things and complex issues easier to manage, and ultimately remember.
As the brain takes in new information it tries to make sense of it, so that it knows what it needs to do. To ease the cognitive load this processing takes, it compresses information and sorts it into patterns. It looks for things that it’s seen or experienced before and goes – “I now know what to do”.
Of course, the brain’s short cutting process isn’t always reliable, and it gives rise to bias in decision making. For example, the brain may expect to see something in a certain way, and so it will seek out information to validate that view. It also filters out information that doesn’t fit with its view of the way things should be.
Consequently, you can close your mind to new information that may be relevant – allowing bias to easily invade your decision making.
Bias impacts decisions everyday
Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant book “Thinking Fast and Slow” shared his years of research into this field. He explains how the automatic and instinctual part of brain can lead to cognitive bias, and that people can place too much confidence in their own judgement.
This leads to decision traps such as: sunk cost (where due to loss aversion people don’t walk away from something, even when the facts show they should), anchoring (where decisions are influenced by the earliest piece of information received), and others.
It is easy to be blind to the obvious and to not see what we should see. All of this is exacerbated when you are tired.
Think of your brain like a muscle. When you work out at the gym your muscles get tired and need to be rested. If you want to be at peak performance you get the right balance between ‘working’ your muscles and ‘resting’ them.
It’s the same for the brain. Every time you make a decision you use up precious resources in your brain.
When your brain is tired it eagerly takes the path of least resistance – making decisions in a way you’ve always made a decision, and letting expectations and assumptions drive your thoughts and actions.
Expand your view
Shifting perspective and being alert to bias takes effort, and involves setting practices that help to regularly expand your experiences and challenge your assumptions.
- Regularly shift your patterns of behaviour so you are exposed to new ways of doing things. This can be as simple as taking a different route to work, trying new activities and pushing yourself to do things that are new.
- Deliberately seek out people with different ideas and perspectives so you are challenged about your assumptions and thought processes.
- When you are making decisions don’t just look for evidence to support your established ideas and opinions, but actively seek the alternate view that may challenge or disprove it.
- Don’t silence dissenters. Be alert to when the person raising the dissenting idea is being ignored. Notice any discomfort you feel about what they are saying, and dig deep into what is driving those feelings and thoughts. Remember, hearing opinions you disagree with is a crucial part of leadership.
- It’s easy to get distracted, so be clear on the process and timeframe for the decision making. Multi-tasking and good decision making are not a successful combination, as you lose concentration and productivity as you switch between tasks.
- Have a confidante or trusted advisor who can help you see what you can’t see.
In doing all this it can be useful to consider the Chinese Proverb: “A wise man makes his own decisions. An ignorant man follows public opinion”.
Seeing what you can’t yet see, isn’t just about follow the leader (or the majority). On many occasions it involves forging your own path.
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.