As we’ve evolved as humans, we’ve created mechanisms to help us handle all sorts of situations.
We’ve developed skills to make quick decisions, maintain our safety, and protect ourselves from threats.
But today, complexity and uncertainty are testing our instincts. In life and in leadership, we’re being challenged to think differently and unlearn old habits. These habits that once kept us safe and shielded us from complexity are no longer lifesaving in today’s environment—they can actually be dangerous.
Jennifer Garvey Berger is a leadership coach, speaker, and author whose work we refer to often, as she inspires new ways of thinking about people, our organizations, and our environment. One of our favorite Garvey Berger books is Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity.
In order to navigate uncertainty, we have to be open to evolving.
Garvey Berger’s work is resonant for leaders who are grappling with shifting their mindset to enable that growth. When we keep trying to fix today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions, the Leadership Mindtraps can help us understand why our natural impulses sometimes steer us in the wrong direction.
Garvey Berger has identified five mindtraps: Rightness, Simple Stories, Agreement, Control, and Ego.
She describes them as “automatic responses” that narrow our points of view and weaken our ability to cope with complexity. She has a great YouTube video that provides an overview of each one, and here’s a quick synopsis:
- Our instinct is to believe we are right, and we tend to collect data that reinforces our rightness. This may be helpful for making snap decisions, but not when we need to weigh more complex choices.
- Simple Stories. We’re storytellers by nature, but sometimes the stories we tell ourselves drastically simplify the world around us and lead us to believe we know what’s coming next. Our simple stories hide the full set of risks and
- We are naturally drawn to agreement because it creates a sense of connection—it’s allowed us to band together and work for the collective good. But in complexity, it amplifies our differences and robs us of diversity of thought, perspective, and solutions.
- We’re hard-wired to desire control, but in a complex environment, control becomes impossible. When we try to manufacture a certain outcome in an uncertain situation, we create consequences that can lead us in the wrong direction.
- We each have a picture of who we are and how we want to be seen, and we’ve work hard to create that picture. But when we protect who we have been, it prevents us from becoming the person that a complex world demands we grow into. Our biggest barrier to change is our own sense of self.
Letting go of these mindtraps and enabling growth will allow for a less defensive, more reflective way of being and leading.
It will open us up to becoming more curious, sensitive, interpersonally skilled, and strategically aware humans.
This is important because the evolution we need right now is less about skills and more about mindset. It’s a shift away from horizontal development—adding more knowledge—to vertical development—expanding our thinking.
Chances are good that you can recall times you’ve fallen into each of these mindtraps.
As I reflect on my personal and professional experiences, there are two traps I seem to fall into over and over again: Rightness and Agreement.
Everyone likes to be right, but I love to be right. So much so that I have a very hard time admitting when I’m wrong. Even when it becomes clear to me that I was mistaken in my assumptions, I find myself searching for reinforcement—something, anything that will back up what I believed to be true.
Recently, I’ve seen it happen as my husband pursues his next opportunity after selling his former business. He’s had dozens of ideas, and I’ve been convinced each is too risky. He’s even pointed out that my automatic response is “Yeah, but …” followed by all the reasons I’m certain his idea won’t work. His calling that to my attention opened my eyes and made me realize that I was closing him—and myself—to what could be incredible opportunities.
Similar to our desire to be right is our longing for agreement.
I recognize that I’m drawn to others who think like me, who believe the same things I believe, and who behave in similar ways. The agreement I seek creates a common bond, and I also think it reinforces my desire to be right.
In a former life, I noticed the agreement mindtrap show up in an interesting way. Rather than seeking out people who agreed with me, I often stayed away from people I knew would disagree with me. I was avoiding the possibility that someone might question my approach, the need to defend my thinking, the potential of having to backtrack and do things differently. Now, I realize that shielding myself from those situations was a missed opportunity to open my mind and grow in new directions.
Missed opportunities like these reinforce the fact that, as leaders, we need to challenge ourselves to step outside of the safety we believe we’ve constructed. We need to be open to shedding what we believe to be true in order to evolve and grow. As activist and journalist Gloria Steinem once said, “The first problem for all of us is not to learn, but to unlearn.”
You can learn more about Transitions Coaching and meet our team here. And if you’re feeling stuck in old habits and are interested in exploring more of our tools, resources, and support, then reach out to us today.