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Learning to Lead (and Succeed) Through Objectivity

Leadership scholars recognize that a key difference between effective and ineffective leaders is the ability to increase objectivity when it counts. That is, effective leaders need to have the distinctive ability to question and improve their underlying mental models, the lenses through which they make decisions and take action amid complexity.
Often overlooked, though, is the practical question for professionals and aspiring leaders of whether and how it’s possible to learn to increase their objectivity.
Based on my extensive research, as well as teaching to thousands of working professionals, I have concluded that it is indeed possible. Increasing our objectivity is about responding and engaging more thoughtfully, deliberately, and effectively with ourselves, others, and the circumstances of our lives. To do this we must:
  • Accept how our minds work
  • Discern our underlying mental models
  • Learn to increase our objectivity in the moment and long term

Accepting How Our Minds Work

Picture this: I walk by a tall woman wearing a gray dress and instantly I feel that I don’t like her and shun her. Why?  It turns out it had nothing to do with the woman. Rather, the woman in the gray dress reminded me of my third-grade teacher who called on me to recite the Emancipation Proclamation. I began and then suddenly I froze. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. My mind was instantaneously responding to the present based on a painful memory from the past.
 
If you are like most people, you care very much about what other people think about you. In fact, what you think about yourself includes what you think others think about you. So it is possible that the totally innocent yet tall women in a gray dress could end up feeling badly. The point is that everyone is instantly judging, categorizing, and responding to everyone else based on a myriad of influences of the mind and these judgments often have absolutely nothing to do with that other person. 
 
The question is: Should you spend any time at all thinking about others’ responses to you, especially when it could have absolutely nothing to do with you? Moreover, can you afford to allow your perception of someone else’s perception of you shape how you feel about yourself? If you base your self-concept on what you think others think of you, then you will always be vulnerable, insecure, and uncertain.
 

Discerning Our Mental Models

In addition to judging and categorizing, the mind creates and supports mental models. Mental models are deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about yourself, the way the world works, and how things ought to be. It is through mental models that we make sense of our environment. We have mental models for every role that we play: mother, daughter, sister, brother, father, son, co-worker, boss, employee, etc. And, so many of them are “as seen on TV.” We have been taught through the media and our parents and teachers, how to think, act, what to like, what to want, and how to value ourselves. 
 
Many of us adopt mental models without thinking about them. What we fundamentally believe about ourselves, what we believe is true, and what we have decided is important to us help determine what our experiences will be. Have you ever thought of buying a new car—a Prius for example—and suddenly everywhere you go you see a Prius? This is a simple example of how something we decided was important to us can come to characterize and color our experiences.
 
What is most interesting is that the content of many of our thoughts is based on self-judgment, negativity, and thinking the worst. Here’s how it can play out. Let’s say that I have a mental model that there is still a glass ceiling in most global corporations. Although there are a few exceptions to the rule, I don’t believe woman can ascend past a SVP level and that women can’t get ahead. One day, I notice that there is an internal job posting for a SVP position. As a result, my thoughts about the job will be something like this:
 
“Oh, I shouldn’t apply for that job. I’m sure they have already decided to give it to a guy. I shouldn’t even inquire about it, because everyone will just think I am crazy for applying.” 
 
If I try to resist these thoughts, my mind will find scientific and anecdotal data to support my mental model and I will decide not to bother. This is how mental models and thoughts work. They perpetuate a reinforcing system that keeps us locked into old ways of thinking and responding to everything we experience. Our minds become hard-wired with these old familiar and somewhat comfortable patterns. As neuroscientists say, “What is wired together, fires together.” 
 

Learning to Increase Our Objectivity in the Short-term and Long-term

We now understand that it is our mental models that drive our subjective response to what we think is “what is.” The challenge is that is takes time to transform a mental model so it is important to have tools to help you be objective in the short term.
 

Short-term Applications

We all know when we are about to react emotionally. We know how it feels. For some it is butterflies in the stomach or an increased heart rate, while for others it is a feeling of agitation. In that instant, before we respond, it is important to just STOP, to say and do nothing. Trust that if your mind is telling you to lash out, you should do the opposite. Tell the person that you will talk to them later, that now is not a good time to continue the conversation. Don’t write the email or, if you do, do not hit send.
 
Developing this mental space will give you the time to process the emotion without reacting inappropriately or in a manner that you may regret. While we are beginning the process of re-evaluating our mental models, this simple technique can help us to respond more objectively to “what is” in the moment.
 

Long-term Applications: Transformational Learning

To increase your overall objectivity requires transformational learning, a process to challenge your underlying assumptions and shift your mental models. A key element of this process is learning the four principles that we all understand through intuition and personal experience:
 

Principle 1: There will always be situations that are not conducive.

Unfortunately, when problems occur, many of us tend to disown the problem or, worse yet, engage in “wishful thinking.” The reality is it that it won’t be all right unless we take appropriate action based on objective thinking.

Objectivity Tip: To effectively handle the day-to-day problems that arise, the first step is to accept that there is a problem. Acceptance of the facts of “what is” is a precondition to right action. Nonacceptance is an ideal condition for an emotional reaction. Furthermore, nonacceptance does not alter the fact that there is a problem; it just creates a chain of further emotional reactions that make the problem worse. If you are objective in your perception of a situation, you can then respond to it in an appropriate manner. The key is to accept a problem as it occurs. 
 

Principle 2: People are fundamentally the same

The human genome project has confirmed that we are all fundamentally similar. Only one one-thousandth of the total components of DNA distinguishes each individual from any other person on the planet. In the context of objectivity, this means that we can all assume that everyone has formed mental models through which they frame their world.  Everyone has a frame of reference. Everyone wants to be successful, have a good job, and take care of their families.
 
Objectivity tip: Understanding this principle can help you accept others as they are and thus stop trying to change them. When engaging in a conversation with another person, especially in the workplace, it is useful to ask appropriate questions to understand their point of view and the mental models through which they may be framing the subject at hand.   
 

Principle 3: Everything is interrelated

Whether we are eating food or driving our car, we are always connected to others --though often in tacit ways. We all know this but somehow we go about our daily lives acting as though everything is disconnected. The truth is that there are universal laws and principles over which we have no control, and which dictate how things interact and connect to each other. We know that when we drop a ball, it will fall. We know that if we touch fire, we will burn.
 
We also know that there is an order to things. There is a physical order that governs the way our bodies function. There is an astronomical order that governs the way the planets revolve. There is a psychological order, a sociological order, and so on. In addition to these immutable laws, there also are universal values that we all seem to know and understand. For example, we know that we don’t like to be lied to or cheated. We know that we don’t want to be physically or emotionally harmed. This is all a part of the order and every order is connected to and interrelated with all the other orders, and each of us is a part of that order. We are all a part of “What is.” 
 
Objectivity Tip: Everything is connected and because we are all a part of “what is,” then, this fact must be the foundation for our self-concept. It is not relative to another person. So, instead of seeing everyone around you at work as competition, see them as related to you, connected to you, but you have your own connection to “what is” and what is possible. 

 

Principle 4: We cannot always control the results of our actions

The reality is that we cannot control the hidden variables that influence success and failure but we can be ready for them by being objective. The challenge for many of us is that we have been socialized to (1) value ourselves and others based on the end result, not the process or the effort. No wonder many of us are frustrated all the time.
 
Objectivity Tip: Being objective means understanding and accepting the fact that you have limited control over the hidden variables. You can only do your absolute best in the present moment and let go of all your anxiety about the way things will turn out. Anxiety never changes the result anyway.
 
Finally, we can begin to transform our mental models every time we stop our automatic response to “what is.” It is because of what neuroscientists call the “neuroplasticity of the brain” that we are able to interrupt our automatic responses and choose a more effective response. We can choose between a mental model that says, “I will always be undermined at work and therefore I can’t be successful” and a mental model that says, “I am a unique individual connected to everything with given talents and abilities that I will use to be successful.” Over time, when you choose the latter, your thoughts and actions will support that mental model, and you will begin to create new professional opportunities for yourself.
Excerpt from book in process entitled Value of Objectivity.
© Copyright 2011 Elizabeth R. Thornton. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced, displayed, modified, or distributed without the express prior written permission of the copyright holder. For permission, contact ethornton@babson.edu
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