Here are four supposed truisms that are flimsier than you might expect: An action bias is critical to success; one-on-ones are a manager's go-to conversation tool; data is king these days; and failing fast is golden.
Let's start with action bias, which many management experts consider vital. But leadership coach Suzie McAlpine calls it "a gnarly, insidious little villain that sucks the life out of your effectiveness as a leader."
She starts with the example of soccer goalies defending against penalty kicks. You may have seen goalies dramatically dive to the right or left in many such situations. Vainly in most cases, she says, since goalies are successful only 12.6 per cent of the time when diving to the right and only slightly better, 14.2 per cent of the time, to the left. But goalies who don't move stop the ball 33.3 per cent of the time.
"Despite this fact, goalies stay in the centre only 6.3 per cent of the time! Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving (an action) in the wrong direction than to watch the ball go sailing by and never have moved (inaction)," she writes on her blog.
That same desire to be seen as active is endemic in the work force: "We should do something, anything, even if we don't know what to do," as she puts it. Faced with uncertainty, we act, even if it's in a counterproductive way. She points to a study that found people feel more productive when they're performing tasks, rather than when they're planning them.
Our action bias can lead us to jump to develop solutions before we fully understand the problem. Hanging back, observing, and exploring before taking action can be more effective.
Here are five ways to tame what she calls your "sneaky action scoundrel":
- Build in time for reflection: Spend 15 minutes daily, if not more, thinking. The best times are at the start or end of the day. Tackle questions like: What did I learn today? What is the most important thing for us to focus on this week in order to get us closer to our goals? What should I stop doing as a result of what I learned today? For the choice in front of me right now, how can I broaden my options?
- Consider doing nothing: Next time you or your team are faced with an opportunity, a problem, or a decision, ask, “What would happen if we do nothing?” It might work.
- Balance doing with being: She advises leaders that “your focus should be more about painting a compelling vision, listening, supporting, coaching, providing direction – all of these are more about the ‘being’ of leadership than the ‘doing’ of leadership. How much of your week is currently about doing vs. being? How can you get the balance right?”
- Become an essentialist: Instead of spinning your wheels trying to get everything done, focus on getting the right things done.
- Interfere less: Stop meddling. Give your team direction and get out of the way.
"There's a beautiful concept in the Tao Te Ching – called Wu-wei … or non-doing, in Chinese, it literally means 'doing nothing.' So do yourself a favour this week – channel this concept of Wu-Wei – do less, kick that overused action bias to the curb, and watch how doing nothing is sometimes way, way better than doing something," she concludes.
Replace one-on-ones with three-on-ones
Leaders are continually urged to hold one-on-ones with subordinates, ideally once a week. But leadership trainer Dan Rockwell suggests that most one-on-one conversations might be better with teammates in the room. He cites these advantages on his blog:
- Development conversations would happen with a wider audience. Team members would know what fellow teammates are working to develop. The transparency would strengthen connection and commitment. The immediate objection, of course, is privacy; some conversations need to be secret. He concedes that is true but questions just how many. “If an employee constantly needs private one-on-ones, there are deeper issues. Maybe you’re creating dependency. It could be that you’re dealing with issues outside your skill-set,” he observes.
- Holding open conversations about personal development gives people an opportunity to participate in each other’s growth, distributing accountability. If two team members know that a colleague is working on curiosity, for example – with a goal of asking two questions before making one statement – they can help out.
- The discussion of activities will be better. After all, three heads are better than one. “Additionally, it’s healthy for others to know the projects you’re working on,” he says.
- Praise will occur, as teammates give each other pats on the back for progress. He concedes that introverts may struggle in three-on-ones and that there could be problems getting people to be open and honest. He doesn’t intend to give up totally on one-and-ones, but he feels it’s advantageous to add three-on-ones to the mix.
Quantitative data and self-deception
Companies like to trumpet the fact they are data-driven. Not so fast, says consultant Wally Bock. You may be deceiving yourself.
"Data is not reality. At best, data can only represent reality. Reality is complex and messy, and we can use data to simplify parts of it so we can understand it better. To do that we must leave out part of reality, assign numbers to things that aren't inherently quantifiable, and approximate relationships with equations," he writes on his Three Star Leadership blog.
Indeed, philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead warned of "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." So set aside your belief that quantitative data is more objective than qualitative data. Yes, qualitative data seems less objective, since it comes in the form of a story – what happened when we observed something. But Mr. Bock points out quantitative data comes with questions, assumptions, and decisions, but they lie behind the curtain of the data and are invisible to the people who receive and use it.
It's still important, but it's not everything you need for a successful business. Relationships drive much of what happens in business. Emotions are important as well: Think of the impact on buying decisions. "The most important things in life and business can't be counted or calculated," he warns.
Failing fast leads to more failure
Another common prescription today is to "fail fast." Try things, even if they fail, and if they do, move on quickly. But as innovation expert Braden Kelly counters on the Innovation Excellence blog: "You don't want to fail fast, you want to learn fast."
Get your employees involved in that effort. Identify what you need to learn with every step in your projects. You can learn from success, by the way, just as you can from failure. Focusing just on failure can lead to failure becoming the expected outcome.
Try to unearth the sources of resistance, the faulty assumptions, and the barriers to overcome early. That can help you figure out ways to avoid failure by designing ways to avoid flaws or obstacles.
Just another myth to reconsider.
- Don’t put high-performers in management, warns writer Ted Bauer, counter-intuitively. In hierarchies, the only way to make more money is to rise up a few levels. That means you could wind up with managers who aren’t in the position because they want to (or know how to) manage other human beings, but merely are motivated by a higher salary.
- It is often thought that poor readability of financial results in disclosure documents can be advantageous. But a new study found the reverse: When a firm provides a less-readable disclosure, participants feel less comfortable evaluating it; their judgments are more sensitive to outside sources of information about the firm, and the valuation judgment is lower overall than when a firm provides a more-readable disclosure.
- When a team is reviewing a long list of strategic objectives, there’s a tendency to give each item only light inspection on the way through, which means underlying issues can be missed. Consultant Rob Wood suggests organizing the team into a few small groups and giving them 15 minutes to drill down on individual sections of the list then report back to the full team. The deeper review surfaces more ideas, choices and concerns that you will want to address.