Successful Entrepreneurship Requires an Open Mind
Being an entrepreneur never gets less challenging – you’ve got to be firing on all cylinders to be effective. Effective leaders aren’t just smart; they identify and overcome their mental handicaps to be the best they can be. Nowhere is this more needed than in startups, small businesses, and high-growth companies. Knowing how your brain works gives you a mental edge that can allow you to overcome almost any adversity.
I’ve studied the brain for even longer than I’ve been an entrepreneur, and there is more about it that’s unknown than known. But one of the most interesting aspects of the brain is that it makes decisions efficiently because it cheats. Rather than rigorously examining every situation it encounters, the brain makes guesses and predictions, relying heavily on previous experience. The brain is not a computer; it’s not even a very good calculator. But it can guess its way through even the most difficult problem. That’s the good news. The bad news is our guessing can sometimes get us into trouble, and that is where even the most adroit leader is prone to making mistakes.
Confirmation Bias at Work
For example, when we hear of something that matches a previously held belief, we automatically confirm it rather than consider whether it could be false. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias, and it’s evolutionarily efficient because it usually works to help us make good decisions quickly. Imagine being in the woods and seeing something that looks like a snake – it would be much better to jump away immediately than to stop and think about whether it might be a stick. But there’s a downside to the brain’s shortcuts: if we’re exposed to something that runs contrary to what we think we already know, we’re likely to simply discard it. It takes a barrage of opposing information to make a dent in our wall of cognitive consistency.
The implications for entrepreneurs are clear. If someone on your team makes a suggestion that confirms what you already know, you’re likely to accept it without even thinking. But if another team member challenges your existing thoughts, you may dismiss them out of hand regardless of whether he or she was correct. The only way to fight your natural confirmation bias is to actively seek out, and then seriously consider, opposing viewpoints. One thing to note is that entrepreneurs tend to be natural contrarians, which is a good thing, but it is still important to consider the normative view. It’s especially important to carefully listen to the perspectives of those whose background or knowledge base is different from yours.
How Correspondence Bias Can Be a Detriment
Another common brain bias is fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias. It works like this: Your colleague Joe shows up 15 minutes late to the Monday morning staff meeting. This annoys you and you make a mental note to yourself that Joe is lazy and bad at time management. The following Monday, you get up early to finish a report but have trouble with your printer, causing you to be late for the staff meeting. You conclude that you were late because you’re such a hard worker and, besides, the printer error was beyond your control. Fundamental attribution error leads us to attribute other people’s mistakes to immutable personality flaws while holding more nuanced and empathetic views of our own mistakes. It keeps us sane and positive, but it may also lead us to false conclusions, whether about ourselves or others. Being a poor judge of people is career suicide for any leader, so make sure you don’t fall prey to this natural brain bias.
Another phenomenon that’s particularly damaging in groups is negativity bias, which is the human tendency to remember or be affected by negative events more than positive ones. This is an evolutionary adaptation that made a lot of sense in the predator-rich past, preventing you from letting good feelings about how well your new cave painting turned out blind you to the ever-present need to avoid being eating by toothy beasts. But it doesn’t serve us as well in a modern, mostly safe, society: One negative interaction with a colleague who’s having a bad day will loom larger in your mind than a dozen positive interactions with him or her. When you compound this by the number of people in your organization, you can see how damaging negativity bias can be to your company’s culture.
Maintaining a positive, energetic environment is a battle against your brain’s evolution, but it’s a war worth fighting. First, focus on staying positive; then influence others to see the world as it really is – or at least as it is in the eyes of an entrepreneur: bright, shiny, and full of opportunity!
The brain is a pretty darned good tool, but its shortcuts can get us into trouble. The above are just a few examples – there are dozens of biases that we can avoid to improve our leadership skills. It pays to recognize your brain’s limits and outsmart it when you can. In fact, the most positive thing we’ve learned about brain biases is that we can retrain ourselves to overcome many of them. With awareness and practice, we can all be a little bit better.