John Ainley: Is your leadership blinkered by the ‘experience blindfold?’

It was the French philosopher René Descartes who argued, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Without coming over all metaphysical, there is a warning in there for today’s leaders who fail to continually challenge their assumptions when it comes to decision making. Or, as I see it, allow their previous experiences to interfere with their ability to watch, listen and learn from others; what I call an ‘experience blindfold’.

Learning the ‘norms’

Do you remember that feeling when you first stepped into a completely new and alien environment? Perhaps in your childhood it was going to a new school, leaving home to go to college, joining a new club, or going to a new workplace. In each new place there are rules and practices – or norms – common to that environment that you learn when you first join, and there are those ‘norms’ established that you build up over time. In other words, they are the established rules of the game.

These ‘norms’ help you build a rhythm and a way of doing things that is incredibly helpful to start with. We’re human, we look for security. But they can become limitations because as you, and the organisation, become more ingrained in these ways and if you have experienced success working within these rules, you start to believe that they are the truth – the only way to do something. Over time we lose a curiosity that is part of us when we don’t know the rules of the game and we risk failing to adapt to new ways of doing things.

Open your mind to different views

The challenge for leaders is to fight that instinct to look for security and familiarity, and have disruptive experiences to make sure you’re keeping fresh. One way is to listen to people with different perspectives: people who are new to the organisation; different generations; people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It is another reason why diversity in an organisation is so important.

Regularly walking around the organisation is another way of exposing yourself to different views as is spending time with your customers. Working with a coach can also help, particularly given how coaches can bring insight developed across multiple industries and organisations.

Take off the ‘experience blindfold’

It can be hard to challenge your established way of thinking. If you believe you’re right then you think someone with a different view will be wrong. You may not have to start from ground zero as Descartes would recommend when seeking to establish the truth, but by actively seeking out and listening to people with different perspectives it can help you develop habits that will refresh your decision making for the better and help you shed your ‘experience blindfold’.