I recently got into an argument with a family member and with Christmas coming up it reminded me that this is often a time for conflict. Understanding its scientific roots might help reduce its impact.
The part of the brain that is responsible for detecting threats is called the amygdala. In our hunter/gatherer days a threat would have been a large predator so this was critical for our survival.
Today physical threats are rare, however our brain hasn’t evolved at the same pace as our environment so our threat-detection circuitry is still highly attuned. Threats today are more likely to be to social threats, and the brain treats these in exactly the same way as physical threats.
A particularly powerful threat is what David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute refers to as a status threat, where we feel someone is belittling us or trying to get one over on us.
We are particularly sensitive to status threats because in our hunter/gatherer days, being further up the hierarchy, meant more food and mating opportunities. Being lower down the pecking order meant less food and sex!
When somebody upsets us, this triggers a threat, and instantly engages our non-conscious brain in a freeze, fight, flight response.
A fight response will mean we argue back, verbally attacking them to re-assert our status. We must win the argument. We must be right! We are hijacked by our emotions. Our non-conscious brain is doing what it is designed to do.
However once we’ve calmed down we may regret our hasty reaction. But by then it’s often too late – the damage has been done. The old adage ‘words said in anger are hard to take back’ bears much wisdom. As does the advice from my grandmother, ‘count to 10 dearest’.
If the perceived ‘attack’ is from our boss, fighting back might be detrimental to our career prospects! In this case our non-conscious brain might choose a freeze or flight response. This will mean we disengage, bear a grudge or harbour resentment – often ruminating for days about what we’d like to have said.
Whether at home or at work, managing social interactions is a fundamental necessity. It is one thing to do it when things are going well, but to do it in the face of conflict and adversity is the sign of real mastery
The brain is a social organ
According to neuroscientist, Matt Liebermann, rehearsing social interactions in our imagination is evolution’s way for us to get more skilled in being social. Our brain is a social organ and our human competitive advantage comes from collaboration with others.
So how do you best manage conflict? Firstly recognise that your brain is designed to react to emotional triggers. These are your survival instincts and, whether you like it or not, you will respond on autopilot with a fight, flight or freeze response.
The trick is to interrupt these automatic non-conscious responses by engaging the conscious brain. One technique for doing this is called labelling. This literally means trying to label the emotion we are feeling. In my case the emotion was humiliation. By forcing our conscious brain to identify our emotional state, this diverts attention and blood-flow away from our non-conscious brain.
Once I did this, I was able to actually feel empathy towards my antagonist and the poignant sting I’d felt greatly receded. This short-cuts pointless battling, entrenched opinions and the risk of escalation.
Whether at home or at work, managing social interactions is a fundamental necessity. It is one thing to do it when things are going well, but to do it in the face of conflict and adversity is the sign of real mastery.
The perfect opportunity to engage your people and boost performance?
Sadly, performance reviews are all too often the source of grief for employees and managers alike, focusing on missed targets and shortcomings.
If an employee anticipates an adversarial review, they’re going to waste a disproportionate amount of time preparing their defence and gathering supporting evidence. Stress and negativity trigger the freeze, fight, flight response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline which shuts down our ability to think clearly and relate positively to others.
Friend not foe
There is another way. A strengths-based approach to performance reviews focuses on successes, learnings and things to do differently next time. This triggers the brains reward circuitry, unleashing insight, innovation and interpersonal ability. Businesses that adopt this approach are generally fulfilling places to work where individuals grow and the organisation prospers.
The naysayers amongst you may be wondering ‘what if the employee has under performed and needs to be pulled up’. The truth is that we are all our own worst critics and your criticism will only rub salt into the wound. Recent research by the Neuroleadership Institute shows that 17 times out of 20, negative feedback (even when positively intentioned) does more harm than good as employees attempt to justify themselves, make excuses and blame others. All this causes resentment on both sides and undermines performance still further.
Focus on what's been achieved and the potential of the employee (rather than criticising their current performance)
Solutions not problems
Focusing on problems and underachievement only embeds the behaviours you are trying to change, thereby having the opposite effect than you intend. In contrast, a solution-focused approach looks at what has been achieved and focuses on the potential of the employee (rather than criticising their current performance). It is progressive and forward looking, which is energising for all involved and is important for developing new brain networks that encourage personal insight and change, and feed the brain’s reward circuits.
Resilience: how to bounce back from setbacks
Some people seem to deal with whatever is thrown at them. Deadlines, back-to-back meetings, long hours, presentations, staff issues, family, etc, etc. They take it all in their stride.
Traditional thinking leads us to believe these lucky people are born with a natural ability to deal with stress – while the rest of us struggle to cope with life’s constant demands. For some, stress is just too overwhelming.
However, neuroscience shows us that learning to handle stress and develop an optimistic outlook is within everyone’s grasp because we all have the power to literally re-wire our brain.
The science of optimism and how it affects you
Just as the brain enables us to learn a musical instrument or a new sport, it can also become hardwired to respond automatically to negative stimuli. This unconsciously learnt thought process keeps us stuck in problem-mode and stops us even noticing possible solutions – the glass is always half empty.
Left to its own devices, our brain will focus on the negative. The brain’s threat detection centre is the amygdala. This evolutionary survival mechanism keeps us continually alert to potential danger. Unfortunately the result is that many of us carry a level of background anxiety and are permanently looking for things that could go wrong.
The destructive power of pessimism…
The results of stress and a pessimistic outlook on the human body are well documented. Impaired immunity, increased risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases; prolonged stress literally kills brain cells. Stress also impacts our professional and personal relationships and overall quality of life.
The positive thinker is healthier, happier and lives longer
So how can we combat negative thinking?
One effective solution, offered by Shawn Achor, is ‘Three Good Things’: My phone alarm goes off at 7:15pm every evening and this is my cue to remember three good things that happened during the day. This habit trains my brain to scan for good news, rather than threats. If my family are present, we take turns at the dinner table to recite three good things. In a similar vein, at work, we start every team meeting asking each person for one piece of good news. Creating this cycle of positivity really does shift the mood, and gets the meeting off to a great start.
The reason employees often complain about feeling criticised is because their manager is unconsciously scanning for threats, looking for deficiencies and perceived shortcomings, instead of praising good work. My phone alarm comes in handy here as well – at 12pm everyday it tells me to ‘compliment someone’. Again, this creates a new habit, making not only the other person happy, but also creating positivity in me.
Being positive will strengthen your resilience to setbacks and enable you to achieve where others struggle. The good news is that it is entirely possible to switch your mindset – even if you’re currently buried deep-within negativity.
So who IS the smartest person in the room?
There is an excellent leadership lesson from the Victorian era, the story of when Winston Churchill’s Mother (Jennie Jerome) dined with rival British Prime Ministers, Gladstone and Disraeli, a week before the election. She compared them thus:
“When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England”.
These two leaders went down in history, but as Jennie summarised with very contrasting personalities.
During their dinner Disraeli wanted to know everything about Jennie, steering the conversation toward her, asking her questions and listening intently to her responses. Naturally, she talked – we always feel good talking about ourselves!
Not surprisingly, Disraeli, the person who mastered the art of making other people feel important, won the election.
Research has established that leaders with a growth mindset (like Disraeli), or ‘multipliers’, get double the productivity out of their people compared with leaders with a fixed mindset (‘diminishers’), such as Gladstone.
Why is this?
In essence, multipliers foster an environment that shines the spotlight on their people, whereas diminishers prefer to shine the spotlight on themselves. A multiplier sees his or her job as developing the capability and intelligence of others, whereas a diminisher has to be seen as the smartest person in the room and their job is to control, manage and organise others.
Diminishers see intelligence as something fundamental about a person that can’t change much, which is consistent with psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of fixed mindset. The diminisher’s logic is ‘if they don’t get it now, they never will so I’ll need to keep doing the thinking for everyone’. In a diminisher’s world there are very few people worth listening to!
‘Make ‘I don’t know’ a strategic part of your leadership. Uncertainty is here to stay. Acknowledging it is a show of strength.’
So what are the lessons for business leaders?
Researcher Liz Wiseman summarises it succinctly:
‘Most diminishers have grown up praised for their personal intelligence and have moved up the management ranks. When they become ‘the boss’ they assume it’s their job to be the smartest and to manage a set of ‘subordinates’.’
Three behaviours Liz identifies that distinguish multipliers from diminishers are:
A multiplier removes fear and creates a safe environment: multipliers invite debate and encourage people to do their best thinking. Multipliers demand people’s best effort; and they get it!
Diminishers create a judgemental environment that has an inhibiting effect on people’s willingness to contribute to debate, resulting in sloppy thinking, poor decision-making and debased productivity. Diminishers demand people’s best effort, but they don’t get it.
A multiplier creates opportunity and sets challenges, encouraging individuals and teams to achieve stretch-targets. They generate confidence and self-belief in others and a desire to succeed, to push their boundaries. A multiplier does not have to have all the answers. In the words of management guru Tom Peters, ‘Make ‘I don’t know’ a strategic part of your leadership. Uncertainty is here to stay. Acknowledging it is a show of strength.’
By contrast, a diminisher has all the answers, is highly vocal about their opinions, gives directives and loves to showcase their knowledge and intelligence.
A multiplier is an investor. A multiplier will coach their people and hold them accountable to deliver the goods, allowing them to fail and learn their lessons on the way.
A diminisher micromanages their staff, whimsically jumping in and out of the detail and punishing failure. The diminisher delivers results through their own personal involvement, whereas the multiplier gives others ownership for results and invests in and celebrates their success.
Diminisher organisation case study
Enron, the infamous American energy company, was a classic diminisher organisation: it created a culture that worshipped, and paid money for, big talent, making their ‘stars’ constantly feel the need to prove their greatness. They were more concerned about maintaining their image than addressing problems and poor decisions and ultimately, decided it was better to lie and cover up than admit they were wrong. When Enron went bankrupt in December 2001, many of its executives were indicted and imprisoned, including CEO Jeff Skilling.
Much of the cause of the most recent financial meltdown can be attributed to a diminisher- and fixed mindset organisational culture. Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker spells out the problem with the fixed mindset: ‘When people live in an environment that esteems them for their innate talent, they have grave difficulty when their image is threatened. They will not take the remedial course’.
In practice, there is a continuum between a multiplier and a diminisher
Where would you position your leadership on that scale? What practices could you undertake to make yourself more of a multiplier?
Are you a victim of circumstance or do you take ownership when something goes wrong?
The most frequent complaint I hear from organisations is that staff don’t take ownership, accountability or responsibility. But what does this actually mean? Let’s take a simple example. If we’re late for a meeting, we will often trot out an excuse, like “the traffic was awful” or “my last meeting overran”.
This is an everyday example of not taking responsibility for our actions and blaming external interference. It’s as if we have no control over our destiny – we are just victims of circumstance. Co-author of The Oz Principle, Tom Smith labels this ‘being below the line’- blaming others or circumstances, making excuses, or denying any short-comings.
So what would an ‘above the line’ response be? Simple, “I didn’t leave early enough!”
Taking another example, imagine you are managing a project and a supplier lets you down which results in the overall project being delayed, and you have an unhappy boss to face. A below the line response would be “the supplier let me down” [Blame].
Being above the line requires a ‘buck stops with me’ mentality (taking ownership, accountability and responsibility). This requires us to examine what we could do in future to avoid a similar incident, for example: Could we have used a better method of selecting a supplier? Did we have a robust contingency plan? How about better communications with the supplier to flag up any issues earlier?
As leaders, we create more of a learning organisation with an ‘above the line’ mentality. To encourage such behaviours requires us to lay off the blame game when mistakes are made, and allow staff to come to their own conclusions about what they can do better next time. Perhaps the real definition of that over-used word ‘empowerment’ is promoting a culture of ownership, accountability and responsibility – above the line behaviours.
As leaders, we create more of a learning organisation with an 'above the line' mentality.
Circumstances count for 10% … how you deal with them counts for 90%
So where do we start? Simple: lead by example! Next time you are late for a meeting, how about saying “sorry, I didn’t leave early enough” rather than “sorry, awful traffic”? Unnerving, perhaps, but what message would this send to your staff about taking responsibility for their actions rather than making trite excuses or blaming others?
There is an extraordinary young lady called Jessica Cox, who, although she was born with no arms, has a black belt in two martial arts and a private pilot’s licence! Jessica says: “Circumstances count for 10% … how you deal with them counts for 90%”.
This certainly stops me in my tracks when I am tempted to blame circumstances for something I didn’t achieve.
Imagine you run a sales team and you haven’t hit your targets, what are some typical excuses?
My manager sets unrealistic targets…
The economy is terrible…
My salespeople don’t have the right experience…
People don’t use the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system properly…
Excuses are natural but unhelpful behaviours. Excuses don’t move us forward. They can be thought of as ‘victim’ or ‘below the line’ thinking. The good news is that for each of these excuses there is an alternative above the line response, one where we take ownership, accountability and responsibility for our results:
My manager sets unrealistic targets becomes – I don’t negotiate effectively with my manager over targets
The economy is terrible – the economy is the same for everyone – I am failing to differentiate my product
My salespeople don’t have the right experience becomes – I don’t train my staff adequately, or I recruit poorly
People don’t use the CRM system properly becomes – I haven’t created proper CRM processes that people adhere to
So next time you’re tempted to complain about something, think of Jessica – what would she say?
Are YOU guilty of dishing out more criticism than praise?
Every day I’m reminded to pay someone a compliment. I started this habit after much research into how people respond better to positive strokes and praise rather than criticism. This may seem blatantly obvious – but in reality it’s not so easy to practice.
This is because our default setting is to constantly scan for threats – up to five times a second in fact. This state of high-alert helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive against predators. In a modern society we don’t need to maintain such paranoia but unfortunately it takes more than 50,000 years to evolve – so for now at least, we’re stuck with our hunter-gatherer brains!
Don’t do what comes naturally!
Our brain is geared for survival – not happiness – therefore we have to learn to counter the constant vigilance for negativity and threat. My phone prompts me to do this every day – reminding me to offset my natural, inherent state and focus on the positive.
As a rule of thumb we should offer at least three praises to one criticism. Research shows that the highest performing teams thrive on nearly six positive comments to every negative one! Teams with lower ratios do not perform so well.
Praise and recognition for a job well done is extremely powerful but the positive effects can only be sustained if offered on a regular basis. Research indicates that employees who report inadequate recognition are three times more likely to say they will leave the following year.
Employees who report inadequate recognition are three times more likely to say they will leave the following year.
Won’t I sound fake?
Sceptical people often ask me whether praising people so often will sound fake, and my reply is always the same: it’s strange that a criticism never feels fake, but a compliment does! This is just more evidence of how our brains are geared to focus on the negative and gloss over the good stuff. We take criticism to heart, but our frequent response to praise is to shrug it off.
At first, this level of praise may feel contrived, but like any new skill – the more you practice, the more natural it becomes. For praise to have maximum impact, it needs to be delivered effectively – the key is to be specific and genuine. Generic appreciation such as ‘good work’ won’t reap the same benefits as ‘your persistence and hard work really paid off in winning this new account – well done’
Positivity is contagious and good employee engagement programmes institutionalise best practice and positive thinking in the workplace. Praise and recognition cost nothing and studies from The Japanese National Institute for Psychological Sciences indicate they can even be as effective as giving a financial reward. Being praised triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. As well as making us feel good, dopamine also contributes to innovative thinking and creative problem-solving.
So praising people makes good business sense!
It may seem counter intuitive, but by giving your employees permission to fail, you could increase their success!
As business leaders we need to constantly be stepping outside of our comfort zone. In my profession public speaking is an absolute must, but I wasn’t always as confident about it as I am now.
A few years ago I volunteered to do a three-minute stand-up comedy routine in front of a considerable audience. I was stepping way outside my comfort zone into the toughest environment in which to hone my skills. If I could do this, then I would have nothing to fear from any professional audience.
For this challenge, I had to adopt a growth mindset: I might make a mess of it, I might be a complete flop, but trying, failing, and learning from mistakes is the way to ultimate success. So I had to remind myself “What’s the worst that could happen?” No one would laugh. I’d look stupid. I’d be so embarrassed that I would want the ground to swallow me up? Was I prepared to suffer those consequences? Yes I was!
Alright on the night …
I stood up in front of the audience and lights burned brightly in my eyes. I could see the dark silhouettes of the audience stretching right to the back of the room. This was it, I was on. I started well, got the laughs I expected. I have to admit the later jokes got a few groans, but all the while I felt the audience was on my side.
If I had adopted a fixed mindset I would have put huge pressure on myself to be an instant success, labeling myself a failure if it had gone badly. I would be a “nobody” rather than a “somebody”. A fixed mindset would have me believe that I’ve either got what it takes to be funny or I don’t, rather than thinking of it as a skill I can develop.
Trying, failing, and learning from mistakes is the way to ultimate success
Let them fail … but provide a safety net
It’s critical for business leaders to encourage a growth mindset in their people if they want to inspire and generate a culture of innovation and growth. What can you do to allow your people to fail safely – and learn from the experience?
Google is no stranger to this. It allows employees to take time out of their working schedule to come up with new ideas. Many of these ideas may well fail, but it only takes a few successful ideas to make Google millions. Taking on new challenges and being prepared to fail is the only way to grow.
As Sir Winston Churchill said “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Is it natural talent, or could you too play guitar like Jimi Hendrix?
As far back as I can remember, I fancied myself as a rock star! So when I turned 13, I persuaded my reluctant parents to buy me an electric guitar. I was convinced I’d be the next Jimi Hendrix; I thought I’d be a natural. I wouldn’t need to practice much – in fact, if I had to work at it, that would mean that I wasn’t naturally talented.
As you can probably guess, I never became a rock legend. I gave up the guitar, dismayed at my lack of progress. My rock and roll dreams were consigned to the dustbin of history!
Nature or nurture?
Most of us have been brought up to believe that talent is innate, for example Mozart was born musical, Tiger Woods was born a golfer, Einstein a physicist, etc. We believe that our abilities are governed by our genes – our DNA is our destiny! Prof Carol Dweck of Stanford University labels this type of thinking a fixed mindset – either you’ve got talent or you haven’t. In my case, I clearly fell short when it came to the guitar, so there was no point trying to improve as I’d never make the grade.
By contrast, a growth mindset understands that talent and ability grow with practice, and innate ability is overrated. Research shows that a growth mindset goes hand-in-hand with high performance and happier, healthier individuals.
Managers with a growth mindset get double the productivity from their staff compared with fixed mindset managers
Dweck’s research is backed up by neuroscience findings that show that the brain actually grows and changes structure as we learn new skills. This was first discovered in 1999 at University College, London, where MRI brain scans of London taxi drivers showed that their hippocampus (the part of the brain used for spatial navigation) was much larger than in ordinary people. The longer they’d been taxi drivers, the larger their hippocampus.
There are also many well documented cases of stroke victims who have made almost complete recoveries because the brain rewires itself to reallocate the processing from the ‘dead’ part of the brain.
In the workplace, it’s been estimated that managers with a growth mindset get double the productivity from their staff compared with fixed mindset managers.
As for me, I decided to give the guitar a second chance at the age of 40. This time my mindset was definitely growth. Armed with a good teacher, the right kind of practice and mental attitude, I managed to achieve a very competent standard. Okay, I’m no Jimi Hendrix, but I am now achieving my rock and roll ambitions… and loving every minute I’m performing with my band on stage.
A word of caution – there is a continuum between a fixed and growth mindset. People can also have a growth mindset in general, but a fixed mindset in specific areas.
Is your fixed mindset affecting your ability to lead? We can help!
“You’re good with your hands…” my parents told me when I was a young boy, “…and your brother’s the intelligent one”. What this spelt out to me was that I was thick! Psychologist Laurel Sheaf explains, “Early in life, we might feel judged or compare ourselves to others and think we come up short. To compensate, we figure out strategies to address whatever we think of as missing. Those early decisions become far-reaching declarations that set the stage for our whole future.”
This certainly rang true for me –not being up to the mark intellectually ran the show well into my 30s, regardless of what people said to the contrary.
This is such a common experience that there is a name for it: Imposter Syndrome. This toxic condition of low self-esteem becomes an explosive mixture in organisations when managers feel a need to cover up their perceived shortcomings in case people “find out who they really are!”
This often leads to dictatorial and defensive managerial behaviours, which is an example of what Prof Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, where we believe that who we are is an immutable truth. Liz Wiseman, a former Oracle executive, calls these types of managers diminishers. Diminishers blame others for failure whilst attributing successes to their own talent.
Who am I?
In biological terms, who we are is represented by a network of 86 billion neurons in our brain. These neuronal connections are who we are – or more correctly, who we have created ourselves to be through a lifetime’s experiences.
Thanks to fMRI imaging and neuroscience research, we now know that the brain is plastic and we can create new neuronal patterns and quite literally re-structure our brain. We are not prisoners of those early decisions we made about who we are.
Foundations for a growth mindset
Neuroplasticity lays the foundations for what Dweck terms a growth mindset – the recognition that we are all able to grow and change substantially, acquiring new skills and thinking patterns as we go through life. We can throw off the shackles of past limiting beliefs and create new futures for ourselves… to be more like Richard Branson, or any other role model we aspire to.
Limiting beliefs typically take the form of “I don’t have a musical bone in my body”, “I’m not the creative type”, “I’m no good at sales”. Or even more pernicious, “I’m not a very nice person.” Self-awareness of strengths and limitations is healthy; however when we let this impede our growth, ambitions and self-image, it becomes toxic.
Self-awareness of strengths and limitations is healthy; however when we let this impede our growth, ambitions and self-image, it becomes toxic.
Debunking limiting beliefs
Limiting beliefs of course seem very real. But their only reality is that of neuronal patterns (or mental events) generated by our brain. They have no more validity than this old picture of me with Richard Branson. It appears real, but I am actually posing with Richard’s wax doppelganger at Madame Tussauds!
In Sheaf’s words “In seeing ourselves as authors of these [flawed] interpretations, we come into the immense freedom of a whole new domain of possibility.”
What limiting beliefs do you have about yourself and those around you?
We hardwire instincts in our brain
Day-to-day living requires us to process huge amounts of intricate information. Just to cross a busy road, for example, we need to work out how far away the next car is, how fast it’s travelling, how wide the road is, and how long it will take us to cross. We do this in milliseconds and yet we don’t even know we’re doing it.
The ability to cross a road is so complex that it takes the first 10 years of our life to develop the necessary brain circuitry. We call this hardwiring – it’s automatic and it’s non-conscious.
People we consider exceptionally talented – musicians, university professors, sports-people – similarly hardwire their skills: a tennis pro knows where a 120mph serve will bounce because they pick up their opponent’s micro signals, muscle movements etc. and process them almost instantly so they are in the correct position to return the serve. Years of practice have created the hardwiring to make such abilities seem instinctive.
How often have we heard the expression “they’re a natural”? The truth however isn’t so glamorous – as Michelangelo said “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.”
The plastic brain
The brain’s ability to reorganise and restructure itself is called neuroplasticity, and it gives human beings a unique survival advantage. For instance, we are able to inhabit any part of the planet because our brain can wire itself to survive under different conditions. We also learn and hardwire complicated tasks such as driving, writing, using a smartphone etc.
While neuroplasticity allows us to go through life hardwiring new brain structures it also brings its own problems. Take driving to work –we often can’t remember the journey we’ve just taken because we’re on autopilot: all well and good until one day we find ourselves driving to the office when we should be heading to the airport!
If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.
It’s easy to trick your brain
Our brain also has a tendency to make sense of partial information and jump to conclusions, sometimes perceiving things that aren’t actually there which neuroscientists believe is a survival instinct from our hunter-gatherer days. For example, if we see an orange flash in the jungle, our brain is hardwired to fill in the missing information to keep us safe – we perceive it as a tiger and prepare for action – even if it then turns out to be something innocuous.
This survival imperative has drawbacks – our brain often fills in the missing information based on hunches and draws the wrong conclusions. In the Kanizsa Triangle (below), our brain pieces together a complete picture from separate fragments to give the impression of a bright white triangle, and a black-outlined triangle.
We see whatever our brain thinks we should!
Look at the chessboard below. Unbelievably squares A and B are the same colour but B appears lighter once the chessboard is complete. This shows in a dramatic way that we only see what we expect, not what’s really there – even when we know that A and B are the same colour, our brain overrides this knowledge. Incredibly 90% of what we see is generated from within the brain (the occipital cortex) and only 10% arrives through our eyes and optic nerve. Ultimately, we see whatever our brains think we should!
In the same way that the brain tricks us with optical illusions, it can also misinform us with labeling and stereotyping errors (thinking illusions). For example, when companies identify ‘high flyers’ or ‘under-performers’, the danger is that those labels will stick. Categorisation is so convenient for the brain that we don’t look for any evidence to challenge our perceptions, so if a ‘low’ performer does good work we may not see it, and if a ‘top’ performer falters we may fail to notice.
Confirmation bias is selective thinking, where we tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs, and ignore, or undervalue evidence that contradicts them: hence the phrase “give a dog a bad name”. Powerful as our instinct is, it can lead us to the wrong decisions! All the research shows that we can’t rid ourselves of cognitive biases, but knowing we have them helps us to make more balanced decisions.
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