Escaping mindtraps

This month, I share what you can learn from the book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to thrive in Complexity by Jennifer Garvey Berger, which has attracted some impressive reviews.

Jennifer points out that, whilst we’re living in a VUCA world, our instincts are wired for a time when things were more predictable.  Jennifer posits these instincts now mislead and “trap” us – her book describes each trap (mindtraps), with key questions to help you identify them and habits to develop that will help reduce the impact.

In my coaching work, I see leaders falling into these mindtraps all the time, so Jennifer’s ideas make sense to me. They help you connect with yourself at a deeper level so you can understand the effect of complexity on you, and show how you can flourish rather than just trying to survive. They apply in life as well as at work.

I’ve added my own commentary alongside the author’s ideas.

Introducing the five mindtraps

Our brains are wired for a simpler age when the main things we needed were food, shelter and safety. Our brain represents about 2% of our body weight, but takes approximately 20% of our calories. At a time when calories were often scarce, maybe this had an impact on our wiring.  However, times have changed. Our five default settings might have helped us in the past, but today, maybe they don’t.

To quote Jennifer:

  1. We believe we are right: Just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is right
  2. We tell simple stories: Your desire for a simple story blinds you to a real one
  3. We love to agree: Longing for alignment robs you of good ideas
  4. We love to be in control: Trying to take charge strips you of influence
  5. We are trapped by our own ego: Shackled to who you are now, you can’t reach who you’ll be next

Let’s look at each mindtrap in more detail…

1. We believe we are right

Most of us think we are right most of the time about most things, without putting in the effort to give it much thought. We often confuse feeling right with being right.

As a result, we lose curiosity and openness to data. Also, it can mean we end up treating people unfairly because we need to convince them that we’re right.

In order to escape your ‘rightness’, ask yourself:

“What do I believe and how could I be wrong?”

Top tip: Create the habit of listening to learn rather than listening to fix or to win.

2. We tell simple stories

Since the start of humanity, we’ve told each other stories to help us make sense of things. We were told stories as children, we tell them to our own children, and leaders are taught how to tell stories to persuade somebody to take a course of action.

We’re taught that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. There are often “good” guys and “bad” guys, and a hero (maybe with superpowers). But, in a time of complexity, things are not so straightforward or clean cut, so simple stories fool us.

Ask yourself:

“How is this person a hero?”

“What’s a simple story I’ve been telling myself that is actually more complex than it appears on the surface?”

Top tip: Create the habit of carrying multiple different stories with you, to remind you that the one story you’re convinced is right might not be.

Whilst I can appreciate Jennifer’s perspective, I do also strongly believe that a strength of leadership remains the ability to analyse and integrate technical detail into a simple, yet compelling story for others to understand and align with.

3. We love to agree

In olden times, we lived in small tribes and communities, where being liked and fitting in usually increased your likelihood of survival.

We’re social beings who are wired to connect. We’re often taught that ‘getting along’ is a virtue. Fairly recent and ongoing research shows that social pain triggers the same reaction in our brain as physical pain.

In companies where there is a strong culture of agreeing, it’s much harder to disagree – but that’s dangerous as the lack of any kind of challenge reduces innovation.

When we can’t agree, we might compromise, or look to the leader to make a decision, or get into our silos and focus only on what we can do by ourselves – any of these responses can create and amplify tensions.

Ask yourself:

“If I wasn’t afraid of being cast out of the tribe, what would I be able to say?”

“Could this conflict serve to deepen a relationship or expand on possibilities?”

Top tip: Create the habit of harnessing disagreement and staying with the discomfort. Being open to different views increases the chance of coming up with new ideas.

4. We love to be in control

We believe we have more control than we actually do (or anyone does), and can be trapped by our need to control.

Historically, leaders were measured by being in control – setting regular goals, sticking to the budget, and hitting metrics. This approach might not be wrong, but, at the very least, it limits you by impeding your ability to handle ambiguity or emerging information that may question the value of these goals/budgets/metrics.

In complexity, dreaming is one of the most important things we can do. Yet, a leader’s instinct is often to shrink their world to what they can control.

Ask yourself:

“What can I help enable?”

“What would enable me?”

Top tip: Create the habit of asking what conditions you can create for something good to happen (host versus hero leadership). People are more likely to have the courage to try something small before taking a big leap, so I recommend you experiment or pilot where possible.

5. We are trapped by our own ego

We defend our identity because we want to show up in a particular way in order to be liked or to project a particular image or to protect needs we may have.

We are often happy to believe we have changed in the past but we are less likely to believe we’ll change much in the future.

Ask yourself:

“What is the identity I am attempting to project into the world, and how does this get in the way?”

“What has been true about me in the past that is now holding me back in some way?

“Who would I like to be next?”

Top tip: Create the habit of listening to learn from yourself. Also, be open to feedback from others – they’ll know your blindspots.

What this means to you

As you read this article, did the mindtraps resonate with you? Which one resonates the most right now? How might you reduce the number of times you fall into that trap?

If you find that you identify with more than one mindtrap, pick the one you have most energy to address. When you do that, you’ll probably find it has a knock-on effect on the other area/s as well.

Keep a diary, ideally daily, but at least weekly, where you make a note of what you’re learning. Notice what it feels like emotionally, mentally and physiologically, so you connect heart, mind, and body.

Have compassion for yourself, because, when we learn something new, it often feels like two steps forward, one step back. Keep going.

When you have conversations with others, use your knowledge of these mindtraps. Ask them the questions above in a curious and non-judgemental way, modelling psychological safety as always.

Related reading

Next month

There will be no new article in August. We’ll be back in September to talk about Overcoming procrastination.