Last week, I have been struck by how prejudice could bring someone to misleading judgements about another person. In what was supposed to be a learning journey, a top executive of the visiting company totally invalidated the person of the welcoming CEO. In a private conversation with his team after the visit, this leader attributed to the CEO illegitimate reasons for his efforts to free up his organization. “He is only interested in money” was more or less the tone of his critique. And that was it. Having worked for years with that particular CEO, this came really as a shock to me, since I had been able to testify in many occasions the authentic commitment he has towards people. How can someone form so fast such a radical judgement ? Can this be avoided ?
Well, first, it is crucial to recognize that I am, that you are, too, prisoner of numerous biases and hasty judgements. And the more powerful our prejudices, the less conscious they are !
We have all read or learned about mental models. Our ability to see is limited by what we have already seen. Francisco Varela showed us how vision was in fact as much (if not more) a projection to reality of previously existing patterns as a reception of new information. Thomas S. Kuhn – with his overused word of paradigm – explained how scientific revolutions only appear when new data does not match with existing views of the world. D. Kahneman, in his remarkable recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, reminds us how “lazy” is our brain in its tendency to use and re-use existing interpretations – in order to think faster. And the list goes on and on of research confirming this human (dis-) ability – from biases in recruiting people who are like you to the link between your size and the likelihood to succeed.
So, is there a way to discover our mental models, and even to alter them ? Here are three practical ways to become more aware of what guides us – for better and for worse.
1. Meet unfamiliar people
In MIT, Edgar Schein invented the empathy walk. This exercise forced his young students to go out and find one person as different as possible from their own culture, background, center of interests, values,… and to explore the world of that person with empathy. I think we should all practice this exercise as often as possible. This is like travelling. Your horizon expands. And when you come back, you see your old routines or behaviours with greater lucidity. As Marcel Proust has put it : the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
2. Do the never
My friend Ville Keränen, from Monkey Business, is building a “Do the Never” tribe around the world. Aalto University in Helsinki has a research program on innovation with a “Licence to Act Differently” (By the way, I am the Agent #1213). What does that mean ? We cannot get out of our coginitive traps without a deliberate effort to do so. Bertrand Martin, a wonderful liberating leader, used to say that he started to invent new things in his company when he systematically tried to do the exact opposite of his well-ingrained traditional management reflexes. Alan Fletcher’s extraordinary book The Art of Looking Sideways could be an endless source of inspiration for you in this practice.
3. Observe your feelings
Feelings are royal gateways to our mental models. Every time you get strong impressions (especially – but not exclusively – negative ones), you can be pretty sure that a deep mental model has been touched. In the event that triggered this blog post, I guess that my overreaction to the comments of this leader has its origins in very deeply rooted representations (like “I don’t want to be seen myself as working only for money” for instance). Sometimes these representations are the worst enemies of our change. In organizations, they are very present too – though also very unconscious. In their fascinating book Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have described them as the big assumptions that always prevent teams or organizations to get out of the “More of the same” syndrom. Unless we surface these big assumptions, we only live repetitive patterns that are sort of done to us.
You may think that these reflections are just “personal development” kind of advice. I believe, though, that violence and conflicts often have their sources in prejudices. Uncovering them and altering them is not only a path to live a richer life, but also a way to contribute positively to the world. We can start anytime.