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The Five Mindtraps: Uncovering the Mental Barriers to Effective Leadership

leadership leadershipmindtraps mindtraps Nov 05, 2023


In today’s world, speed and complexity are two factors that are difficult to navigate and are here to stay. This requires leaders to be aware of the mental pitfalls that can inhibit our growth and success. In 2019, Jennifer Garvey Berger authored Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity. From the trap of Simple Stories to the pitfalls of Control, Ego, Rightness, and Agreement, leaders are confronted with psychological barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential. In this post, we will explore each mindtrap with an initial layer of detail and provide practical strategies to overcome them. Let's begin with our exploration of the mindtrap of simple stories.

The Mindtrap of Simple Stories: Mental Efficiency, Not Necessarily Accuracy

Your brain is a remarkable organ, constantly working to make sense of the world around you. However, being the single largest consumer of energy in your body, it is seeking to work as efficiently as possible and can often lead you astray. One of the mindtraps we often fall into is the creation of simple stories. Our brain, being incredibly efficient, tries to condense complex situations into easily digestible narratives. This may have served us well in the past when survival instincts were more straightforward. However, in today's complex world, these oversimplified stories can hinder our understanding, limit the accuracy of our memories, and prevent us from thriving. Our desire to simplify a story can blind us to the real story.

Think about it - how many times have you constructed a narrative in your head, only to later realize that your assumptions were not based on reality? It's embarrassing how often this happens, isn't it? Our brain fills in the gaps with assumptions, assumptions that may not be accurate at all. To make matters worse, those assumptions generally lead us to make ourselves the hero of that story. This can increase our hesitancy to trust the input and perspectives of others and give too much credibility to our own perspective.

When we apply these flawed narratives to new situations, we're essentially operating on false pretense. This can lead to misunderstandings, misjudgments, and ultimately, ineffective leadership. It's crucial to be aware of this mindtrap and make a conscious effort to challenge the simple stories our brain automatically creates.

So how can you overcome this mindtrap? The first step is to recognize when you're falling into the trap of simple stories. Be vigilant to stay aware of your own thought processes and be willing to question your assumptions. Seek additional information and perspectives to gain a more complete understanding of the situation. Can you find two to three additional perspectives of the situation, and carry them with equal consideration?  Remember, the devil is in the details, and in a complex world, those details matter. Embrace the complexity, and resist the urge to oversimplify, and you'll find yourself on the path to more effective and informed decision-making and leadership. And finally, consider how others in the situation might also be seeing themselves as the hero in the story. The goal is to step outside the trap of your own simple story by gaining awareness and broadening your perspective.

The Mindtrap of Control: Understanding the Need for Empowerment

Many of us fall into the mindtrap of control because we believe that being in charge will lead to better outcomes. It's true that feeling in control can bring happiness and reduce stress, but there's a fine line between being in control and not fully trusting others. Today's leadership environments are full of diverse perspectives and complex issues, and organizations are realizing the importance of empowering their teams rather than relying on top-down control. Letting go of control in big, intertwined, and highly complex situations may seem counterintuitive, but it generally creates an environment where ideas and perspectives can flourish, and outcomes are generally far more effective than outcomes that are unilaterally created.

Research has shown that diverse teams, whether in terms of ethnicity, age, or experience, are more effective. When different perspectives and lenses are brought into the mix, better ideas are generated, and a higher degree of rigor is applied. This means that by releasing control and allowing others to contribute, organizations can benefit from the transformational power of diversity.

One of the best considerations to make at this point is who or what can I enable. If you are the primary leader, this is a great time to distribute decision-making and authority. It is also a good time to ask, what would enable me to do what I uniquely need to get done? Every activity in an organization is a part of a larger system, and it takes consideration of that system as a whole to move each individual part forward.

The Mindtrap of Ego: Embracing Growth and Change

Our ego shackles us to our current state, preventing us from reaching our full potential. Transitioning from one stage to another involves a liminal space where there is a loss, but it's essential for growth and personal development.

Unfortunately, the fear of looking foolish or irresponsible can hold us back from embracing change. It's important to recognize that transitioning to a new version of ourselves is a process that allows for personal growth and transformation. By letting go of our ego and being open to new possibilities, we can tap into our true potential and become the best versions of ourselves.

It's crucial to understand that relinquishing control and ego can lead to better outcomes, both personally and within organizations. Embracing diversity and empowering others can bring fresh ideas and perspectives while embracing growth and change allows for personal development and innovation. Letting go of the mindtraps that hinder our progress, like the mindtrap of ego, will ultimately lead to greater success and fulfillment.

The Mindtrap of Agreement: Harmony Over Innovation

In our modern world, making decisions based on limited input is a common practice. But have you ever stopped to think about the risks involved in this approach? The mindtrap of agreement is a concept that challenges us to consider whether we should solely rely on our own experiences and perspectives when making important decisions. Instead, shouldn't we seek a more collective and data-driven approach? By gathering supporting evidence that either confirms or challenges our initial decision, we can dive deeper into the issue and make more informed choices. Let’s explore some strategies to help break free from the mindtrap of agreement and embrace a more innovative and inclusive decision-making process.

The need for agreement is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Throughout generations, living alone was a dangerous prospect. Whether it was the threat of others taking advantage of us or the scarcity of resources, being part of a tribe or community was vital for survival. This need for unity and agreement still lingers within us today. We are hesitant to rock the boat, fearing that disagreement might fracture the bonds that hold us together as a community. But what happens when our devotion to agreement blinds us to the possibility of growth and progress? We may find ourselves in situations where we are unable to critically evaluate the accuracy of our shared beliefs. We become trapped in a bubble of agreement, unable to hear alternative voices or consider perspectives that challenge our own.

Feedback, conflict, and disagreement can all be on-ramps for learning and expanded perspectives. Whenever there is an abundance of agreement on a leadership team, that wasn’t first met with questions and colliding perspectives, someone needs to take an adaptive approach to intentionally disrupt the agreement to pursue yet unmentioned alternatives. Agreement is not bad or undesirable unless it is simply accepted without a process of testing its legitimacy. Conversely, disagreement is also not bad or undesirable. In fact, intentional disagreement, when there is untested momentum toward agreement, will expand the set of possibilities and allow for a more resilient conclusion as an end result. Simply asking the question, “What aren’t we asking that we should be asking,” can allow a leadership team to explore consideration beyond the box of agreement they have placed themselves in.

The Mindtrap of Rightness: Feeling Right, Doesn’t Mean It’s Right

The mindtrap of rightness emerges as a profound exploration of the pitfalls that leaders often encounter. This cognitive trap illuminates the tendency to cling to our own perspectives and beliefs as the sole source of truth, hindering our capacity for growth and adaptive leadership. The mindtrap of rightness obstructs the essential process of learning from others and understanding diverse viewpoints. By shedding the illusion of unwavering certainty, leaders can embark on a journey towards greater humility and flexibility, ultimately fostering more effective and responsive leadership in a complex and ever-evolving world.

Leaders can skillfully navigate the "trap of rightness" by incorporating a couple of pivotal questions into their decision-making process. First, they should inquire, "What do I believe?" This introspective step enables them to pinpoint the underlying factors influencing their conclusions. However, the real breakthrough occurs when they pose the second question: "How could I potentially be wrong?" This inquiry opens the door to new perspectives and fresh approaches to action or decision-making.

Furthermore, leaders can bolster their ability to remain receptive and curious during the data-gathering phase by adopting the habit of "listening to learn." By resisting the impulse to hastily embrace their own perceived rightness and instead acknowledging discomfort when they discover they may be wrong, leaders can foster an environment of continuous learning and growth.

Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps offers valuable insights into the challenges leaders commonly face in their roles. It encourages readers to question their entrenched beliefs and cultivate adaptability and humility. Overall, it serves as a thoughtful resource for those seeking to enhance their leadership skills in a changing world.