“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”
— Simone Weil
In my work with leaders, I find that one very human characteristic holds us back from being an effective leader: our ability and propensity to tell ourselves stories.
Humans are storytellers. Our lives have meaning in direct proportion to how we incorporate our experiences into a coherent narrative. We each have our own life story that we are continually updating in our heads. The way we visualize each scene shapes not only how we think about ourselves but how we behave. Unfortunately, we confuse the stories we tell ourselves with the truth. Our desire to impose order on our circumstances often causes us to construct stories from random facts and then decide those stories are true. Our desire for a simple story blinds us to a real one.
Have you ever had a colleague at work that you just know is out to undermine you? Maybe, you’ve seen him talking to your boss and when you come into view, they both stop talking and look guilty. Maybe, he doesn’t invite you to meetings you should be at. Maybe he’s dropped casual hints that your work hasn’t been up to par lately and he asks if you’re having difficulties in front of your other colleagues. The problem with this scenario is that you don’t know if any of your conclusions are true.
This tendency to make up a story impacts us as leaders because we’re trying to function in an increasingly complex environment where the past is not a good predictor of the future. So we take a random set of facts and circumstances and find a pattern where there isn’t one. Our evolved brains want to believe that reality (which is constructed differently by each of us) has a beginning, middle and end where we can connect causes and effects. Unfortunately, in our complex world, a simple story is usually wrong.
It doesn’t matter the industry, be it healthcare, financial services, senior living. The future will look much different than the past and if we try to plan for the future based on our stories of the past, we will inevitably be wrong.
So how do we escape the trap of constructing simple stories and keep an open mind. According to Jennifer Garver Berger in her new book, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, the first move to escaping the trap is to notice that the trap exists. The second is to realize that we are in one. The next move? Keeping at least three possible stories about the situation in your head at any one time. Continually ask yourself, “What do I know for sure?” “What do I believe?” and “How could I be wrong?” Just because we feel something is true doesn’t make it so. Search out other perspectives and especially perspectives that may differ from what you believe
What we see depends mainly on what we look for.
― John Lubbock