The Poisonous Stick Interpretation

The other day on a hike, I jumped out of my skin when I came across a stick that had the same coloration and shape of a copperhead. Obviously, I could only interpret that observation as any sane person would: the stick, wishing to protect itself, used a camouflage design to resemble a deadly snake. No predator in its right mind would attack a copperhead.

Similarly, leaders often make all of the right observations but draw completely false conclusions.

For example, when a leader sees poor quality, he interprets, I must have lazy, careless employees.

When a leader sees declining performance, she interprets, I need to re-examine all of our processes.

When sales are down, the obvious answer becomes, The sales team needs additional training.

When morale and engagement are low, It’s because of all of these entitled Millennials in the workforce.

When turnover is on the rise, Obviously, we have a compensation issue.

While any of those interpretations could be true, many times leadership’s interpretations and remedies are based on erroneous assumptions stemming from their own biases and experiences. If you have 4 leaders with different backgrounds (like engineering, project management, human resources, and legal), take it to the bank that they can observe all of the same facts yet draw completely different interpretation on what those facts mean.

So how can a leader know if his or her conclusions come from a foundation of fact vs. opinion?

Don’t interpret agreement to mean that you are correct.

An inexperienced leader may interpret a group of nodding heads to mean he or she is correct. So when a number of direct reports say I agree! with gusto, the leader looks no further for confirmation. It’s human to want people to agree with us.

But it’s not always wise.

In my high school trigonometry class, a classmate, Steve, showed me his answer, which happened to be the same answer that I had come up with. Which, unfortunately, was not the answer the teacher wrote on the board. I raised my hand and told the teacher that I had come up with another answer, and then I added that Steve agreed with me.

Mr. Clark answered sarcastically with truth, and his words stuck with me:

“I’ll bet,” he said. Then he added, “That’s because mediocre minds think alike. The entire class could come up with the same answer, and all that would mean is that you are all incorrect.”

Leaders, discern the truth by looking outside the small circle of people who agree with you.

Don’t interpret dissenting opinions as threats. 

Be honest with yourself: do you hear contrary opinions as mutiny, and see those expressing disagreement as mutineers?

History books are full of individuals who bravely expressed a solitary, unpopular opinion. Like Copernicus. His interpretation of the solar system led him to the conclusion that the Sun formed the center of our solar system and not the Earth, which was radical at the time. No one agreed with him. But his interpretation proved correct.

A leader who dismisses contrary opinions will eventually stop hearing contrary opinions. But don’t confuse silence with agreement that your plan is best. It just means that those “mutineers” have given up believing that you will hear a contrary opinion. Sadly for you business, another company might be thrilled to hire that employee, implement his ideas, and capture your market share.

Don’t interpret the world with only your own lens.

Top leaders understand their own strengths. Additionally, they recognize that each person surrounding them at the table brings unique and, hopefully, complementary strengths.

How do strong leaders keep themselves from making erroneous interpretations about any particular problem or opportunity they see in the workplace?

Get out there where the work is being done.

Undercover Boss is based on the idea that if leaders were to go into their organizations incognito, they would see and hear truths they would never likely see otherwise. Get out on the “shop floor” to witness firsthand what is really going on. When you see something you don’t like, ask questions like, “Can you help me understand why we do things that way?” Get employee ideas by asking things such as, “How do you think we can fix this problem or make this better?”

Bring in a fresh set of eyes and ears.

As consultants, my wife and I are often asked to help resolve a workplace problem or opportunity. Most of the time, before we even get there, the leader has diagnosed the problem and comes to us for two reasons: (1) validation, and (2) intervention. And many times we have the challenge of telling the boss something like this:

“We can do all of the things you’d like us to do, but it won’t fix the problem. Your observations are spot-on, but you may have drawn the wrong conclusions.”

Leaders can’t fix what they can’t see. We all become blind to our own biases and perspectives. Sometimes having a fresh pair of eyes and ears can uncover new and more accurate interpretations that are skewed by bias or tunnel vision.

Your Turn.

How do you prevent yourself from making observations and drawing incomplete or inaccurate conclusions?

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