The Tricks Their Brains Play on All Leaders

Leaders must have frank followers and vocal opponents just to improve their capacity to perceive and judge the world around them. Otherwise, they risk relying on their own faulty interpretations, memories and foresight to understand the situation. It’s just the way our brains work.

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, explains why the shortcuts our brains take will always leave us with an imperfect understanding of any situation. We make sense of everything through our mental models. Our eyes and ears might register a full assessment but our brains will interpret and file away this mass of sensory information according to how we frame the world.  As soon as we experience anything, all memory immediately becomes selective. And with time, this is especially true.

Gilbert’s take on our capacity for foresight and anticipating how we will feel about really big decisions is just as arresting. He says our imagination has three shortcomings:

  • Our minds fill in and leave out information without telling us (that selective perception and memory problem).
  • We project the present onto the future. We assume how we feel now is how we will feel later.
  • And we fail to recognize things will look differently once they have happened.  Even bad things look a lot better to us once our capacity for rationalization kicks in.

So what can a leader do with these tricky brains? Gilbert recommends relying on surrogates to improve your judgment.  Keep your frank followers and vocal opponents close and take what they say seriously. They probably are in touch with a part of the situation your brain has blithely skipped past because the information can’t be filed into any of the assumptions you use to interpret your world.  Neuroscience and psychology warn us that “what am I missing here?” is a really big question for every leader.