In the heat of battle, soldiers strive to vanquish a foe they have already decided is dangerous. There is no time for second guessing when on the attack. Unfortunately, we often bring that same mindset to daily decision making. Psychologists call this “motivated reasoning” where we want some ideas to win and others to lose, rather than looking at each objectively. Leaders who can tap into curiosity may be better positioned to accept new information and make better decisions. It’s the difference between thinking like a soldier and thinking like a scout. You can scout out lots of new ideas and insights at the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference.
Our unconscious motivations, desires and fears greatly shape the way we interpret information and, therefore, how we make decisions. “Some information and some ideas feel like allies and we want them to win,” says Julia Galef, cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality and host of the Rationally Speaking
podcast. “Other information and ideas feel like the enemy and we want to shoot them down,” she explains in a TED talk exploring better decision making.
Psychologists call this type of thinking motivated reasoning
. Even when we try to evaluate ideas objectively, we are often deceived by biases toward findings that confirm what we already know or believe.
On a personal level, we might discount information that runs counter to our self-image. As a leader and member of an organization, we may ignore objective information that conflicts with a preconceived solution. Leaders might also unwittingly give less credence to ideas from colleagues or departments for which they have less respect or a contentious relationship.
Sport, politics, work
Galef urges leaders to imagine watching a professional sports event and cheering for their favorite team. Fans are highly motivated to believe and support calls the ref makes that favor their team, and immediately poised to question those that go against them.
Similarly, an argument made by a political leader we already support is far more likely to gain our approval than the same argument made by someone we see as on the other side. Such thinking represents “. . . a very unconscious process, rooted in defensiveness and tribalism,” Galef says. She argues that better decision making has a lot to do with our ability to get out of soldier mindset (characterized by motivated reasoning) and into a scout mindset.
Think like a scout
A soldier has a mission and moves forward to carry it out, no questions asked. Scouts, on the other hand, survey the landscape up ahead to gather new information. They are not trying to make one idea win or lose. Their driving desire is to actually see what’s there. They want objective information, even if it’s inconvenient or unpleasant.
If sales are falling, scouts look under every rock to figure out why. They don’t jump to conclusions and place blame elsewhere. They look at the challenge as more of a blank slate and are even open to evidence that may make their job harder.
In many ways, corporate America has traditionally rewarded a soldier mindset. Battle jargon is rampant and supreme confidence often rewarded. We rally the troops, fire shots across the bow, pick our battles, identify targets, marshal resources and avoid collateral damage all in a day’s work.
Here are some ways to add more scouting to your repertoire.
Consider your prejudices.
Today, we have a better understanding of how unconscious bias relates to race and gender and that information is also critical to decreasing motivated reasoning. Build on that knowledge to recognize and cut through your own prejudices on every piece of information you encounter. It will help you see facts and objective data for what they are, and what they can do for you.
This is where the scout lives and thrives. She cultivates curiosity rather than defensiveness. She learns to be intrigued by data, opinions and input that contradict her own assumptions.
Test your thinking.
When confidence is prized over contemplation, it is difficult to test your own beliefs. If you see open-mindedness as weak and changing your mind as flip-flopping, you may find yourself defending your territory to the death (more of that battle jargon) rather than revising strategy to move forward in a more fruitful direction.
According to Galef, being able to admit you were wrong without having it torpedo your self-esteem is a predictor of good judgment.
Expose yourself to new ideas.
When you commit to ongoing learning and growth, you are more likely to maintain an open mind to novel ideas and less likely to simply dig in and defend outdated approaches. Try reading different sources, exploring inspiration in other functional areas and industries and engaging with people whose approach often runs counter to your own. Prioritize learning with professional development activities, such as the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference
Improving individual and group decision-making, Galef argues, is often less about changing what you know
and more about changing how you feel.
That means being intrigued when you encounter information that contradicts existing beliefs. And taking pride in your ability to admit when you are wrong.