Most Leaders are Mindless – Likely including You

Why are Experts prone to Mindlessness?

When people become comfortable with a task, they no longer need to consciously think about doing it. In other words, it becomes a mindless act. For example, if you are an experienced driver, you no longer need to consciously think through all the steps of starting, putting into gear, stepping on the gas pedal and driving an automobile. In fact, you likely can not recall details of most things you passed along the way on a recently driven route. Yet, when it was a novel experience, most people recall in some detail the first time they drove, including whom they were with, what type a car it was, where they drove, etc., even if it was 30+ years ago as in my case.

cheerful and happy young woman in her car showing her new driving license

Why Experts are prone to Mindlessness

Mindlessness, from a professional context, is our tendency to apply our experience to a current situation without fully appreciating other possibilities or perspectives. If the situation is familiar to us based on past experience, training, or successes, we tend to draw conclusions that can blind us to new ways of thinking. Additional causes of mindlessness is our vulnerability to cognitive biases and being distracted, hurried or stressed. In their book concerning their research of High Reliability Organizations (HROs), Weick and Sutliffe (2007) describe mindlessness as:

a style of mental functioning in which people follow recipes, impose old categories to classify what they see, act with some rigidity, operate on automatic pilot, and mislabel unfamiliar new contexts as familiar old ones (p.88).

Switching from Mindless to Mindful

By following recipes, Weick & Sutcliffe mean following plans as-is without thought, understanding, or being creative if circumstances change. By managing mindlessly we ignore subtle clues of disruptions caused by unexpected events, and perhaps more importantly narrowly limit possible solutions. Ellen Langer, a pioneer in the Western-based perspective of Mindfulness, maintains that a cognitive switch in thinking from one of mindlessness to thinking with a heightened state of awareness and involvement and being ‘in the present’ is needed to become mindful.   This requires (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000):

  • a greater sensitivity to one’s environment
  • more openness to new information
  • the creation of new categories for structuring perception
  • enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving

Warning: Don’t read this next paragraph if you are about to have surgery!

In a study I recall from the field of medicine, it was found overwhelmingly that in surgery, when anesthesiologists first sense a potential issue with a patient, they will put a ‘mental label’ on what they believe to be going on with the patient. As they continue to monitor the patient they update their thinking but from within a boundary of their initial analysis. Rarely do they take a full step back and determine if it could be something else entirely they are witnessing. Anesthesiologists do this based on their years of extensive education, training and experience. From a statistical standpoint you are generally in good hands as a surgical patient, but if you or a loved one is the patient I would guess you’d hope the anesthesiologist and entire surgical team acts mindfully as suggested in the four bullets listed above.

What percentage of Project Managers were found to be vulnerable to Mindlessness?

I conducted a survey as part of a management research study that included measuring vulnerability to mindlessness of the participants (all large building construction project experts), the results showed 90% had a high potential for mindlessness with 10% having a moderate potential for mindlessness.

Given the considerable experience and expertise of the participants, the commonness found of a high vulnerability to mindlessness was surprising at first, but should not have been given the aforementioned reasons given for our susceptibility to act mindlessly, particularly when faced with things that appear familiar to us. For project managers, particularly those on complex projects where uncertainty and the unexpected is inevitable, being mindless does not allow us to be open to new information, especially from skeptics, in order to gain multiple perspectives and best determine if a re-categorization of the problem is necessary.

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