Our CEO made a mistake, which of course he didn’t realize. It’s common mistake leaders at all levels make, and yes, I’ve made it too. We were aware employees were having conversations with a union who wanted to organize them. In retrospect it is easy to see why employees were listening as most of our leadership was pre-occupied. We were in the middle of merging three large organizations, attempting to build a new integrated system. Leaders were involved in meetings, meetings, and more meetings, not around our staff. Issues and problems they had couldn’t get solved quickly because no one knew who had authority to do anything, so things sat and didn’t get fixed.

We met on Monday to talk about the union and how to respond. Our CEO opened the meeting by saying, “I think I know people and I read some books over the weekend on Labor Relations. I now know what we should do.” There was dead silence around the table, at first wondering if he was joking, then realized he was dead serious. No one knew what to say. It was an awkward meeting. Understanding union organizing and the Federal laws surrounding it are not simple, and I will tell you he did not know what to do.

I’m positive you’ve experienced this in your career, we all have. When things go bad, which they always do, the person then blames someone (maybe you) or something, but never themselves. (Please share your story with me at dale@dalekreienkamp.com of when you experienced this in your career)

The problem is their understanding of something was an illusion.

It’s referred to as the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, which comes from research conducted at Yale by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002. It simply means that people overrate their understanding (they think they know more than they do) of a complicated phenomenon. Their overconfidence comes from having knowledge of an element of something more complex than they realized.

Have you ridden a bicycle? I imagine you have, just like me and millions of others. Can you identify how the three working elements of a bike, the frame, pedals, and chain are positioned on a bike so they will work? Would you be shocked to know that in a study at the University of Liverpool in 2006, only 60% could identify the positioning of those elements, draw, or explain how a bicycle works? It’s true, that’s the number, which means 40% failed, even though they have ridden and may still ride a bike.

If we don’t understand bikes well, what does that mean for us as leaders?

  1. Don’t assume you know it all. This is a common leadership mistake. We like having the answers, it makes us feel good. Your over confidence comes from experience, i.e., “I know this because I dealt with this before at …” You may have had a similar situation, but rarely is it the same.
  2. Act like you don’t know. Humility is helpful. Ask questions as if you’ve never had this experience, draw the expertise out of others on your team. If it is like something you’ve experienced, your questions will confirm what is similar and different. In the end, it’s not about what you know, but what your team knows.
  3. Admit your mistakes. It’s humbling, I know, because I’ve had to do it. But it’s powerful and shows you are human. When you don’t admit your mistakes, you lose credibility with your team. They don’t know if you are stupid and don’t “get it” or just stubborn.

Running a business of any kind is complicated, challenging, and full of troubles. Don’t make it worse by believing the illusion that you know more than you really do.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. John 16:33

Share via
Copy link