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The Smarter They Are, The Faster They Stereotype

Mental horsepower doesn’t always guarantee mental dexterity. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you lack the motivation to think perspectives, you’ll miss many occasions to think again. This is backed by research that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more you’re likely to fall for stereotypes, perhaps because you’re faster at recognizing patterns.

In psychology, two biases could explain this pattern. One is confirmation bias, which is basically seeing what we expect to see. The other is desirability bias, which is seeing what we expect to see. These biases control our intelligence and prevent us against the truth. The tragedy is that we’re often unaware of these flaws in our own thinking.

There’s a third bias, which is a favorite bias of Adam. “I’m not biased” bias explains that people believe they’re more objective than others. It turns out smart people are more likely to fall into this trap. Being good at thinking can make us worse at re-thinking.

 

A Scientist Walks Into Your Mind

Any scientist by trade knows that rethinking is fundamental to their profession. They’re required to be constantly aware of the limits of their understanding. They doubt what they know, explore what they don’t know and update their views based on new data. In the past century alone, the application of scientific thinking has discovered penicillin, sent us to the moon and built the Internet.

Being a scientist isn’t just a profession. It’s a frame of mind. Scientific thinking favors humility over pride, doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure. When we think like a scientist, we start to rethink our thinking. If we’re preaching, we cannot see gaps in our knowledge. We believe we’ve found the truth. Pride breeds conviction rather than doubt. That launches us into confirmation and desirability biases. We become politics, ignoring or downplaying whatever doesn’t agree with our opinions. We fall into fat-cat syndrome, resting on our laurels instead of pressure-testing our beliefs.

 

Steve Jobs Did The Rethinking At Apple? Or Did He?

The legend of Apple’s renaissance centers around Steve Jobs, the lone genius. The story goes, it was his genius, clarity of vision that gave birth to the revolutionary iPhone. This is only part of the truth. The reality is Jobs was dead-set against the mobile phone category. It was his employees’ vision and their ability to change Job’s mind that really saved Apple from the brink of collapse. Sure, Jobs knew to think differently but it was his team that did much of the re-thinking.

In 2004, a small group of engineers, designers, and marketers pitched Jobs on turning their hit product, the iPod, into a phone. “Why the f@*& would we want to do that?” Jobs snapped. “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” The team had recognized that mobile phones were starting to feature the ability to play music, but Jobs was worried about cannibalizing Apple’s thriving iPod business. He hated cell-phone companies and didn’t want to design products within the constraints that carriers imposed. When his calls dropped or the software crashed, he would sometimes smash his phone to pieces in frustration. In private meetings and on public stages, he swore over and over that he would never make a phone.

Yet some of Apple’s engineers were already doing research in that area. They worked together to persuade Jobs that he didn’t know what he didn’t know and urged him to doubt his convictions. It might be possible, they argued, to build a smartphone that everyone would love using—and to get the carriers to do it Apple’s way.

Research shows that when people are resistant to change, it helps to reinforce what will stay the same. Visions for change are more compelling when they include visions of continuity. Although our strategy might evolve, our identity will endure.

The engineers who worked closely with Jobs understood that this was one of the best ways to convince him. They assured him that they weren’t trying to turn Apple into a phone company. It would remain a computer company—they were just taking their existing products and adding a phone on the side. Apple was already putting twenty thousand songs in your pocket, so why wouldn’t they put everything else in your pocket, too? They needed to rethink their technology, but they would preserve their DNA. After six months of discussion, Jobs finally became curious enough to give the effort his blessing, and two different teams were off to the races in an experiment to test whether they should add calling capabilities to the iPod or turn the Mac into a miniature tablet that doubled as a phone. Just four years after it launched, the iPhone accounted for half of Apple’s revenue.

The iPhone represented a dramatic leap in rethinking the smartphone. Since its inception, smartphone innovation has been much more incremental, with different sizes and shapes, better cameras, and longer battery life, but few fundamental changes to the purpose or user experience. Looking back, if Mike Lazaridis had been more open to rethinking his pet product, would BlackBerry and Apple have compelled each other to reimagine the smartphone multiple times by now?

The curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we don’t know. Good judgment depends on having the skill—and the will—to open our minds. I’m pretty confident that in life, rethinking is an increasingly important habit. Of course, I might be wrong. If I am, I’ll be quick to think again.

 

The Armchair Quarterback and the Impostor

The conventional wisdom says confidence and competence go hand in hand. In practice, they often diverge. You can see it when people rate their own leadership skills and are also evaluated by their colleagues and subordinates. You’ve probably met a football fan who’s convinced he knows more than the coaches on the sidelines. That’s the armchair quarterback syndrome, where confidence exceeds competence.

The opposite of armchair quarterback syndrome is the imposter syndrome, where competence exceeds confidence. Imposter syndrome is when people believe they don’t deserve their success when they reach a certain level of success. They’re genuinely unaware of how intelligent, creative and charming they are. And sadly, no matter how hard you try, you can hardly change how they think.

So where is the ideal level of confidence? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Our job is to find that sweet spot between the two syndromes.

 

Finding the Sweet Spot of Confidence

Confident humility opens ways to re-thinking and improves the quality of our thoughts. In academics, students who are willing to revise their beliefs get higher scores than those who don’t. When adults have the confidence to acknowledge what they don’t know, they pay more attention to how strong the evidence is and spend more time listening to opinions that contradicts their own thinking.

In rigorous studies of leadership effectiveness across the US and China, the most productive and innovative teams are run by leaders who are confident and humble. They don’t harbor doubts because they’re impostors. They maintain them because they know they’re all partially blind and committed to expanding their sight. They don’t go around saying how much they know. They marvel at how little they understand. They know they need to recognize and transcend their limits if they want to push beyond greatness.

 

The Good Fight Club: The Psychology of Constructive Conflict

Karen Etty Jehn, an organization psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts in conflict management, says there are two types of conflicts. When you think about conflict, you’re probably picturing ‘relationship conflict’ – personal and emotional clashes. There’s another flavor called ‘task conflict’ – idea and opinion clashes. The two types of conflicts lead down to two very different consequences.

In 2000, Pixar was on fire. Their teams had used computers to rethink animation in their first blockbuster, Toy Story, and they were fresh off two more smash hits. Yet the company’s founders weren’t content to rest on their laurels. They recruited an outside director named Brad Bird to shake things up. Brad had just released his debut film, which was well reviewed but flopped at the box office, so he was itching to do something big and bold. When he pitched his vision, the technical leadership at Pixar said it was impossible: they would need a decade and $500 million to make it.

Brad wasn’t ready to give up. He sought out the biggest misfits at Pixar for his project—people who were disagreeable, disgruntled, and dissatisfied. Some called them black sheep. Others called them pirates. When Brad rounded them up, he warned them that no one believed they could pull off the project. Just four years later, his team didn’t only succeed in releasing Pixar’s most complex film ever; they actually managed to lower the cost of production per minute. The Incredibles went on to gross upwards of $631 million worldwide and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Before Brad Bird arrived, Pixar already had a track record of encouraging talented people to push boundaries. But the studio’s previous films had starred toys, bugs, and monsters, which were relatively simple to animate. Since making a whole film with lifelike human superheroes was beyond the capabilities of computer animation at the time, the technical teams balked at Brad’s vision for The Incredibles. That’s when he created his challenge network. He enlisted his band of pirates to foster task conflict and rethink the process.

Brad gathered the pirates in Pixar’s theater and told them that although a bunch of bean counters and corporate suits might not believe in them, he did. After rallying them he went out of his way to seek out their ideas. “I want people who are disgruntled because they have a better way of doing things and they are having trouble finding an avenue,” Brad told me. “Racing cars that are just spinning their wheels in a garage rather than racing. You open that garage door, and man, those people will take you somewhere.” The pirates rose to the occasion, finding economical alternatives to expensive techniques and easy workarounds for hard problems. When it came time to animate the superhero family, they didn’t toil over the intricate contours of interlocking muscles. Instead they figured out that sliding simple oval shapes against one another could become the building blocks of complex muscles.

Great leaders know they learn more from the people who challenge their thought process, than a team of yes-man. They engage their critics to explain their range of view and make their thoughts stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics out of the fear of losing power and authority. 

 

Dancing With The Foes

In a war, our goal is to gain ground rather than lose it, so we’re against the idea of surrendering even a few battles. But when you’re negotiating, agreeing with someone else’s argument is disarming. It’s the same as dancing. You can’t stand still and expect the other person to make all the moves. To get in harmony, you have to step back from time to time.

Neil Rackham and a team of researchers examined what expert negotiators do differently. They recruited one group of average negotiators and another group of highly skilled ones. To see these two groups compare, they recorded them doing labor and contract negotiations.

One difference was visible before anyone even arrived at the bargaining table. As the researchers interviewed both groups about their plans, the average negotiators went in armed for battle, hardly taking note of any anticipated areas of agreement. The experts on the other hand, mapped out a series of dance steps and devoted a significant time to finding common ground.

Second difference emerged as the negotiations began. Most people think of arguments like a pair of scales. The more reasons we can pile up on our side, the more it will tip the balance in our favor. But the experts did the opposite. They presented fewer reasons to support their case because they didn’t want to water down their best points. As Rackham said, “A weak argument generally dilutes a strong one.” That happened regularly to average negotiations. They lost ground not because of the strength of their most compelling point, but because of the weakness of their least compelling one.

Third difference suggests average negotiators were more likely to enter into defend-attack spirals. They downplayed the other proposals and insisted on their own positions, which prevented both sides from getting into harmony. The experts, in contrast, rarely went to offense or defense. Instead, they fixed their curiosity with questions like ‘So you don’t see any merit in this proposal at all?’

The Fourth difference between the two groups were the questions they asked. Of every five comments the experts made, at least one ended in a question mark. They appeared less assertive, but much like in a dance, they led by letting their patents step forward.

 

Diminishing Prejudices and Stereotypes

Many psychologists agree that our beliefs are cultural truisms: widely shared but rarely questioned. It’s only when we take a closer look at them, we start to identify our beliefs rest on shaky foundations. Stereotypes don’t have the structural rigidity of a carefully built ship. They’re more like a tower in the game of Jenga, teetering on a small number of blocks with some key supports missing. All you need to knock it over is to give it a poke.

Sometimes questioning our stereotypes means realizing that many members of a certain group aren’t terrible at all. And that’s more likely to happen when we actually come face to face with them. The most effective way to help people pull the unsteady Jenga blocks out of their stereotype towers is to talk with them in person.

 

Motivation Through Interviewing

Motivational interviewing begins at the intersection of humility and curiosity. The goal is not to tell them what to do, it is to help people break out of negative cycles and see new possibilities. Motivational interviewing happens in three simple steps:

  1. Ask open-ended questions
  2. Engage in reflective listening
  3. Affirm the person’s desire and ability to change

Adam recalls himself motivating her friend through interviewing: “One day a friend called me for advice on whether she should get back together with her ex. I was a fan of the idea, but I didn’t think it was my place to tell her what to do. Instead of offering my opinion, I asked her to walk through the pros and cons and tell me how they stacked up against what she wanted in a partner. She ended up talking herself into rekindling the relationship. The conversation felt like magic, because I hadn’t tried to persuade her or even given any advice.”

When people ignore advice, it isn’t always because they disagree with it. Sometimes they’re resisting the sense of pressure and the feeling that someone is telling them what to do. Motivational interviewing overcomes this resistance by giving them their freedom and getting along the lines of “Here are a few things that have helped me. Do you think any of them might work for you?”

Today, motivational interviewing is used by tens of thousands of practitioners around the world. Health care professionals use it to help people quit smoking, abusing drugs and having unsafe sex. Coaches use it to build grit in professional soccer teams. Teachers use it to nudge students to get full night’s sleep. Consultants use it to prepare teams for organizational change. Environmental activists use it to help people get on with climate change. 

 

Depolarizing Our Divided Discussions

Daniel Goleman who popularized the concept of EQ, preaches that emotional intelligence matters more than IQ and accounts for nearly 90 percent of success in leadership roles. At the other extreme, Jordan Peterson, writes there’s no such thing as EQ while downplaying emotional intelligence as a fraudulent concept.

Adam thinks they’re both missing the point. It’s not about arguing if EQ is meaningful. Instead, we should focus on the circumstances that explain when it’s more and less consequential. It turns out EQ is beneficial in jobs that deal with emotions, but less relevant in jobs where emotions are less central. Think of a real estate agent, customer service rep or a counselor being skilled at managing emotions. EQ can help them support their clients and address their problems. But for an accountant or a technician, being an emotional genius isn’t very helpful. It could even become a distraction. If someone’s doing your taxes or fixing your car, you wouldn’t pay too much attention to emotions.

Adam shared his own thought on falling prey to idea cults. He said, “From time to time I’ve run into idea cults—groups that stir up a batch of oversimplified intellectual Kool-Aid and recruit followers to serve it widely. They preach the merits of their pet concept and prosecute anyone who calls for nuance or complexity. In the area of health, idea cults defend detox diets and cleanses long after they’ve been exposed as snake oil. In education, there are idea cults around learning styles—the notion that instruction should be tailored to each student’s preference for learning through auditory, visual, or kinesthetic modes. Some teachers are determined to tailor their instruction accordingly despite decades of evidence that although students might enjoy listening, reading, or doing, they don’t actually learn better that way. In psychology, I’ve inadvertently offended members of idea cults when I’ve shared evidence that meditation isn’t the only way to prevent stress or promote mindfulness; that when it comes to reliability and validity, the Myers-Briggs personality tool falls somewhere between a horoscope and a heart monitor; and that being more authentic can sometimes make us less successful. If you find yourself saying ____ is always good or ____ is never bad, you may be a member of an idea cult. Appreciating complexity reminds us that no behavior is always effective and that all cures have unintended consequences.”

 

Building Cultures Of Learning At Work

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded after a catastrophically shallow analysis of the risk that circular gaskets called O-rings could fail. Although this had been identified as a launch constraint, NASA had a track record of overriding it in prior missions without any problems occurring. On an unusually cold launch day, the O-ring sealing the rocket booster joints ruptured, allowing hot gas to burn through the fuel tank, killing all seven Challenger astronauts.

In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated under similar circumstances. After takeoff, the team on the ground noticed that some foam had fallen from the ship, but most of them assumed it wasn’t a major issue since it had happened in past missions without incident. They failed to rethink that assumption and instead started discussing what repairs would be done to the ship to reduce the turnaround time for the next mission. The foam loss was, in fact, a critical issue: the damage it caused to the wing’s leading edge let hot gas leak into the shuttle’s wing upon reentry into the atmosphere. Once again, all seven astronauts lost their lives.

A lack of psychological safety was a persistent problem at NASA. Before the Challenger launch, some engineers did raise red flags but were shot down by managers. Others got ignored and ended up silencing themselves. After the Columbia launch, an engineer asked for clearer photographs to inspect the damage to the wing, which again ended up in ignorance. The result is that most engineers at NASA decided not to speak up even in the most critical meetings.

Over the past few years, psychological safety has become a buzzword in many workplaces. Most leaders understand its significance but they often misunderstand how to put it into practice. The standard advice for managers is to model openness and inclusivity. If people at the top of the organization ask for how they can improve, people at all levels will feel safe to take risks.

Adam said, “To test whether that recommendation would work, I launched an experiment with a doctoral student, Constantinos Coutifaris. In multiple companies, we randomly assigned some managers to ask their teams for constructive criticism. Over the following week, their teams reported higher psychological safety, but as we anticipated, it didn’t last. Some managers who asked for feedback didn’t like what they heard and got defensive. Others found the feedback useless or felt helpless to act on it, which discouraged them from continuing to seek feedback and their teams from continuing to offer it.

Another group of managers took a different approach, one that had less immediate impact in the first week but led to sustainable gains in psychological safety a full year later. Instead of asking them to seek feedback, we had randomly assigned those managers to share their past experiences with receiving feedback and their future development goals. We advised them to tell their teams about a time when they benefited from constructive criticism and to identify the areas that they were working to improve now.”

By acknowledging their imperfections out loud, managers demonstrated they could take criticism and remain open to feedback. They normalized vulnerability, makehing their teams more comfortable opening up about their problems and mistakes. And the employees did give more constructive feedback because they knew their managers were working to grow with them.

 

Accountability Is Best Served With Process, Not Results

Focusing on results might drive short-term performance but it’s a major obstacle to life-long learning. Exclusively praising results is dangerous because it often breeds overconfidence and incentivizes people to keep doing things the way they’ve always done. It isn’t until a high-stake decision goes horribly wrong that people step back to rethink their process.

We shouldn’t wait until a space shuttle explodes or an astronaut nearly drowns to examine if a decision was successful. Along with result accountability, we can create process accountability by assessing how carefully crafted options are considered as people make decisions. A bad process is based on shallow and narrow thinking. A good press is based on deep thinking and rethinking.

Perhaps Adam’s favorite process of accountability is what he has seen at Amazon. Important decisions at Amazon aren’t made based on simple PowerPoint presentations. They’re informed by a six-page memo that lays out a problem, different approaches that were considered  in the past and how proposed solutions serve the market. Six-page memoirs are particularly common in choices that are both consequential and irreversible at Amazon. Even before the results are apparent, the rigor and creativity of the author’s thinking in the form of a six-page memo ensures the quality of the decision process.

We can’t run experiments in the past. We can only imagine counterfactuality in the present. We can wonder if the lives of those fourteen astronauts would have been saved if NASA had led the path of rethinking O-ring failures and foam loss before it became too late.  We can wonder why those events didn’t make them as careful in changing their thoughts with spacesuits as they had become with space shuttles. When we take a moment to rethink our thinking, we’re no longer weighed down by questions – which means we can live with fewer regrets.

 

Time For A Checkup

As a closure note, Adam share his thought on rethinking our career choices. He said, “My advice to students is to take a cue from health-care professions. Just as they make appointments with the doctor and the dentist even when nothing is wrong, they should schedule checkups on their careers. I encourage them to put a reminder in their calendars to ask some key questions twice a year. When did you form the aspirations you’re currently pursuing, and how have you changed since then? Have you reached a learning plateau in your role or your workplace, and is it time to consider a pivot? “

Regularly checking up career choices help you stay curious enough to discover new possibilities or even reconsider previously discarded ones. Checkups are not limited to careers. They’re relevant to plans in every domain of our lives. A successful relationship requires regular rethinking, whether it’s with our friends, mentors or a partner.

Our identities are open. So are our lives. We don’t have to stay fixated to old images of where we want to go or who we want to be. The simplest way to start rethinking our options is to question what we do daily. Rethinking liberates us from the shackles of our familiar surroundings and former selves. Rethinking is a tool for leading a more fulfilling life.

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Kyaw Wai Yan Tun

Hi, I'm Wai Yan. I love designing visuals and writing insightful articles online. I see it as my way of making the world a more beautiful and insightful place.