In all walks of life, there are people who have deeply held convictions about how the world works, and act accordingly. The business world is no exception.
Examples I encountered during my career were business leaders that held and acted according to the following convictions:
- The only way you gain respect by ‘the business’ as a staff department, is by reducing your headcount to the absolute minimum
- Partnering with other vendors to deliver an integrated solution for clients is unnecessarily complex and has a negative impact on the margin
- Teams perform at their best if the annual bonus of individual members is linked to individual financial targets
- Customizing services for individual clients equals to sub-optimization
Strong convictions usually stem from the successes they brought us in the past. They also tend to become stronger over time: every time we successfully act in accordance with one of our convictions, our inclination to use it in similar situations increases.
Strong convictions offer several advantages
Strong convictions help us to make sense of the world around us and to simplify our decision-making processes. They save us time and effort. When we are confronted with an issue on which we have a strong conviction, our mental muscle memory immediately kicks in to prescribe the decision we need to take.
Another advantage of strong convictions is the potential it offers to persuade others. Because we feel strongly about a topic and have an active ‘personal repository’ of evidence (previous cases in which a particular course of action worked for us), we can speak convincingly to others about it.
The problem is that strong convictions limit our interest in looking for alternative courses of action when we need to take decisions. As a sociologist, I learned to label this as ‘bounded rationality’. There are so many issues we need to address, and we already have the answer to this particular one, why should we spend any more time on it?
The reason why we might have to spend more time on it stems from the fact that we might rely too much on pattern recognition. As a result, we do not see the specific opportunities or dangers specific situations offer us.
First of all, too much reliance on ‘pattern recognition’ makes us overlook the unique opportunities a seemingly similar situation may offer.
In the early 1960s, record labels were flooded by requests from rock bands to be signed. Hence it is no wonder almost all of them refused to sign the Beatles, after all, they were just one of these many rock bands…
Strong convictions also make us ignore threats. An acquaintance of mine in the mobile phone industry told me in 2008 that iPhones were no serious threat to Nokia because they were not as robustly built as Nokia phones. A statement that was 100% true, and at the same time 100% irrelevant. Consumers proved to be more sensitive to the additional features of the iPhone and seemed fine with the build quality of this device.
Anyway, we all know this list is endless: Kodak not recognizing the threat of digital photography, DEC not believing in personal computers, Blackberry not seeing their encryption infrastructure should have been capitalized as a service with an app, but instead chose to directly compete with the iPhone, Yahoo turning down Google, etc.
As a matter of fact, I do not need to look to others. A couple of years ago I turned down an offer to become one of the guest bloggers for Peakon when it was still a small start-up. After one post I stopped because I did not believe in their business model… Arrogant? Moi?
Leaders are especially vulnerable
Leaders are especially vulnerable to being blindsided by their strong convictions. The reason is that, to a large extent, leaders depend on their teams to tell them if and when their deeply held convictions are not relevant anymore.
However, at the same time, the same team members are often acutely tuned to the opinions of their leader. They might have been burned before by the way their leader dismissed their contradicting opinions, and most often will not be willing to volunteer to contradict opinions again.
…and should position themselves as such
The only way to break this specific stalemate for leaders is to question their own opinions in meetings with their teams. They should, to use a fashionable term, become ‘vulnerable’. It might make sense for them to adopt the habit to share from time to time in team meetings that they still have a particular opinion about a topic, but are interested to know if this opinion is still valid in the current situation their organization faces.
Warning signs for leaders
A sign this might be in order is when you hear yourself preaching to your team. Like in church, the only expected answer to a sermon is ‘amen’, so watch out if you notice your team members are dutifully nodding, but you cannot detect any real enthusiasm.
Similarly, as a leader, watch out for using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’ – these sound like doctrines in the making…
A great case story of a leader who managed to listen despite his own convictions is Steve Jobs, who really struggled with his team before finally agreeing Apple should release the iPhone.
We do not know what we do not know
Unfortunately, questioning our deeply held beliefs is more an art than a science. First of all, we might not even be aware of what our deeply held convictions are. Secondly, it is hard to understand when we should take which views into question. However, practicing this and becoming good at it might prove to be the difference between success and failure.
No one said leadership was easy – that is why they asked you!