Mirror, Mirror

Metaphors are nonpartisan. Today two New York Times columnists, one conservative and one liberal, used
the same “look in the mirror” metaphor. It seems that regardless of what side
of the aisle you’re on, those on the other side lack self-awareness.

In “The Tenacity Question,” David Brooks raises questions
about President Obama’s desire to pursue the war in Afghanistan. He suggests
that it’s not his scheduled meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that’s
important, but the one with the “mirror, in which he looks for some firm
conviction about whether Afghanistan is worthy of his full and unshakable

Paul Krugman writing about health care reform in “The Defining Moment”
takes aim at the centrists opposed to the current bills. While he deigns not to
“psychoanalyze” them, he does urge them to “take a good hard look in the

Whether you agree with their positions or not, it would be hard to
deny that both of these men are brilliant, and that’s what’s so surprising
about their use of the same metaphor. The two are judging the character of
those opposed to their point of view, and asserting that with a little
self-reflection, they would recognize the error of their ways.

In rhetoric, going after the character of your opponent is known as an
“ad hominem” attack, and it is usually resorted to only when the logically
challenged fail to come up with a convincing counter-argument. Since it demeans
the other side, it’s hardly going to persuade anyone not already persuaded, and
it usually elicits an ad hominem attack in return. 

As Steven Pinker has pointed out in The Blank Slate, our minds have evolved to convince us that we are
always the one acting morally, regardless of whether we are or not. I’ve got to
believe that both Brooks and Krugman are familiar with Pinker’s work. So the
only way they could resort to an ad hominem attack is if they were lacking
self-awareness as well.

The findings of neuroscience suggest that the metaphor itself is
problematic, for we’re not capable of an objective view of the person in the
mirror. Our perception is a product of everything going on in the brain,
including our feelings of self-righteousness.

If my view of the mirror image were objective, I wouldn’t be so
shocked by the person that shows up in videos of my interviews and speeches.
While there are times that I’m less than pleased with my mirror image and
others that I’m quite happy with that good looking guy smiling back at me, what
I see is almost always a function of what’s going on inside of my head, and in
particular in the limbic system responsible for my emotions.

The objective self-reflection I believe both Brooks and Krugman are intending
for their opponents would indeed make us all better people, but it’s just not
possible unless we view ourselves not from inside, but from the outside. If we use
our mirror neurons to assume the perspective of others, we’ll be much more
objective when we look back at ourselves.

Even better, we should assume the perspective of those we feel are
deserving of those ad hominem attacks. Seeing the world from their perspective
will better enable us to appreciate the reasoning that got them to the position
we have such an issue with. While it may not lead us to agree with them, it would
make us better at reasoning them into an appreciation of our point of view.

And that should be why we take the trouble to state our position,
either orally or in writing. Otherwise, we’re no better than alpha chimpanzees
and their displays, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” We may get
people’s attention, but not their commitment.

Brain Science Can Lead Us Out of the Doldrums

Even the most cheerful optimists have got to be depressed by the economy. Every time we get data that suggests we’re finally coming out of the Great Recession, it’s followed by more that indicates we’re not, lately even in the same report. Perhaps we need to set aside the wishful thinking and just accept what we’ve got: an economy that isn’t falling off a cliff, but isn’t going to come roaring back any time soon.

It’s tough for the bipolar financial media to recognize that it is what it is, because there’s no news in a so-so status quo. It’s the really good or really bad that drives us to buy newspapers or visit websites. But it’s also tough for managers. Nobody gets rewarded or excited when earnings are flat, and most businesses have already cut all there is to cut to bump up their bottom line.

Part of the problem, we’re told, is that there’s no hot new technology like computers or the internet to help us dig out of the hole of debt we’ve created. But I think there is a hot new technology, not right in front of our noses, but behind them. Neuroscience’s incredible advances in understanding how the mind works have enormous potential to transform the way we run our businesses.

I’m not talking about pills that supposedly make us smarter, nor do I believe that using neuro-feedback to teach managers how to mimic the brain wave patterns of great leaders will make them great leaders. Such approaches are just too far out there for me or, I suspect, my clients. And while brain scans may help us understand what product features stimulate the release of the pleasure inducing dopamine, it’s still a long way from that knowledge to a product that will delight customers and make a profit. The real gains come from just factoring in how the mind works when we make business decisions.

A number of years ago, Ernst and Young came up with the tag line, “There’s not a business we can’t improve.” While a marketing campaign that insults the capability of potential clients is ill-considered, and evidence of not paying enough attention to the mind, the firm was correct in it’s assessment. Because our conventional way of thinking is flawed, according to neuroscience, it inevitably leads to flawed businesses.

I would bet anyone that has worked in the corporate world would agree that organizations are hugely inefficient and that much of what managers do is self-defeating. At the same time, there is a solid body of data on which organizational designs and management practices improve performance. The reason we don’t replace what doesn’t work with what does is exactly what the latest research in neuroscience teaches us.

Because the brain doesn’t record our experience of the world, as conventional wisdom asserts, but creates it, as neuroscience has established, we live in a world of our own making. But most of what we do as managers is based on the assumption that we all see things the same way. The feedback I give employees is objective and for their benefit, the rewards I dispense are generous, and this time I’m serious about change.

But employees don’t see things the same way as managers, so they don’t respond the way we expect. Our feedback comes across as punitive and is rejected, our rewards are so small they’re seen as insulting, and change is just more of the same. Worse yet, I see what I believe, so all I become aware of is evidence that what I do as a manager is effective. Given the self-deception our brains are capable of, we’re just not good judges of what works or doesn’t.

And much of what has been proven to work flies in the face of our common sense. Self-management improves performance and open organizations that give up the illusion of control outperform traditional ones. Engaging narratives are much more effective at changing minds than logical arguments, and inspirational visions trump measurable objectives in driving performance.

Because of the kind of thinking our culture has historically valued, we pay inadequate attention to the minds of those we interact with. In an objective world, there’s no reason to. But neuroscience teaches us that the world we live in isn’t objective, and if we take the lesson to heart, it dramatically changes how we manage.

Calculate the savings if managers no longer waste their time doing what doesn’t work, if we dispense with all of the organizational control systems people cleverly find ways to work around, and if we no longer spend money on change initiatives that don’t change anything. Now add in the increased productivity that comes from highly engaged people eagerly contributing their best thinking to further the success of the business. Factor in, as well, the increase in revenue that would come from designing and marketing products that leverage how and why customers make buying decisions, and the gain in market share that would come from strategies that confound the thinking of the competition.

The total would dwarf any savings coming from cost-cutting or the implementation of new information technology. This isn’t science fiction or some pipe dream of what the future will bring. We have the knowledge and the means to apply it today. In fact, there are companies already reaping the benefits of this new scientific approach, and not just in Silicon Valley but in the heartland as well.

No new technology indeed!

Being Practical

A little while ago, I was walking down an isolated beach in the Caribbean when I met up with a young boy playing on the remains of a wrecked sloop. He was native to the island, which meant that he had been born there and was of African descent. The original natives, the Lucayans, had all been wiped out within a generation of Columbus’ landing in the New World, and African slaves had been imported to work the salt pans and sugar cane fields.

As we talked, he mentioned that he had just won the spelling bee at his school. I congratulated him and then asked if he’d ever seen the movie “Akeelah and the Bee.” The film is about a young African-American girl who competes in a spelling bee. I had watched it with my young daughters and they had found it very inspirational.  They both said it made them feel like they wanted to work really hard and excel at something.

The young boy had seen the movie as well, he told me, and he particularly liked how even though the white people had cheated, Akeelah had beaten them. I thought for a moment, and then remembered a scene where the parent of one of the contestants had indeed tried to coach her child from the audience.  At the time, it hadn’t struck me as very significant.

There is no question that the “white” people have behaved very badly in the Caribbean, both in the past and in the present, and any honest person will admit to some racial tension on this island paradise, on both sides. Race has always been fertile ground for irrational prejudices and unfair stereotypes. One has only to think of Obama’s comment about how his white grandmother was afraid of young black men on the street, while she was raising a young black man herself.

But what struck me most about my conversation with the boy was how different our perceptions of the movie were. We saw a different movie, selectively remembered different parts, and probably took away different messages. One could speculate that the messages would also drive different behavior.

For me, the most incredible discovery of brain science is that what happened with the perception of the movie isn’t the exception, but the rule. All of know that we have biases and that they affect the way we read situations, when we stop and think about it. But when that MRI first tracked the flow of information through the brain and we saw how the brain first disassembles sense data and then reassembles it with input from the areas of the brain responsible for our beliefs, attitudes, and desires, we realized that all of us are creating our own views all of the time, and there is no objective standard to measure them by.

The MRI didn’t necessarily teach us anything we didn’t already know, but it gave us the kind of scientific data that we consider proof, and the ramifications of the finding should transform how we behave. When we can’t trust our view as the truth, or be sure that others see things the way we do, we have to change the way we operate.

The science makes me humble. It teaches me that I’m not in sole possession of the truth, so I’d better seek out other ideas that will challenge mine. I can no longer feel righteous indignation over the words or actions of others, because they simply stem from a different view. When I’m interacting with people whose support I need, it’s no longer a question of what I want, but of understanding what others want.

So when I’m on my game and attending to the new view science gives us, I try to behave differently. I try not to judge others, but to appreciate their point of view, so I declare less and ask more questions. I try not to get trapped in the way I see things, but instead empathize first. I don’t expect my employees, my spouse, or my children to follow my direction, no matter how entitled or right I may think myself to be.

I’m not alway on my game, of course, although the tricks of perception might delude me into believing I am. So it’s an ongoing struggle. Many would see this as simply being polite or moral. But I also see it as practical. We are social beings, highly dependent on others, and anticipating where others are coming from is the starting point for figuring out how we can gain their support.

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