American businessman Max DePree wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” In the simplest terms, this means identifying how their organization is really doing, which requires an honest assessment of where they are. Defining reality can be challenging, and it’s made even more complicated when leaders persist in false beliefs. Delusions manifest in numerous forms, but we often see three false beliefs that we think hamper a leader’s ability to define reality for their organizations.
In 1990, Stanford University graduate student, Elizabeth Newton, asked study participants to think of a well-known song (e.g., “Happy Birthday to You”) and tap out the song’s rhythm on a table-top for another study participant to name the tune. Of 120 tapped songs, only 3 were correctly identified, though the “tappers” predicted that the “listeners” would have a 50% success rate. This is the knowledge delusion in action. When we know something, we attribute that knowledge to those around us, but we’re often mistaken about what they know. We see the knowledge delusion surface in key ways, including whether team members know the organization’s mission, values, and strategy and whether they understand the direct connection between their role and the organization’s success. While executives and middle managers can “tap” those songs, we often see a significant disconnect in understanding within other parts of the organization, including the Board of Directors and front-line employees. Can your team explain your organization’s core identity (e.g., mission, values, strategy) and articulate the critical role they play in living out that identity?
Much of our recent work has been helping organizations carefully craft their desired culture. A key component of the work has been putting critical messages on repeat with organizational leaders and cascading those messages throughout the organization. Interestingly, we’ve reached a similar moment with almost all these leaders—the moment that they say, “We’ve been saying the same thing over and over. By now, surely everyone understands the message, right?” The frequency delusion leads us to believe that because an idea or message has been at the forefront of our minds, it has been the focus for others as well. We often tell leaders, “About the time you are sick of saying the message, it’s just starting to resonate with your teams.” Does your team truly comprehend the messaging you’ve been sharing, or have you given up too early?
We once worked with a leader who was sharing his frustration about a project he was leading. When we asked about the value of the project, he sighed heavily and admitted that it didn’t have significant value but that he had “invested so much time in it, I can’t stop now.” In fairness to that leader, we’ve likely all fallen prey to the investment delusion—investing critical resources on a task or project that isn’t going to give us a good return, yet we just can’t walk away from the investment we’ve already made. Unfortunately, every activity we say “yes” to means we are saying “no” to others. What ideas, projects, or tasks is your organization committing energy to that should be discontinued to better steward your energy?
Reflection: Which delusion rings true for your organization? What can you do this week to break free of that false belief?