Thinking Upside Down

In my day job, I’m coaching an extremely capable executive in a high technology company. During our first meeting, I asked him to explain his business. It took no more than thirty seconds or so before I was absolutely lost.

My first thought was that this was a much more complex business than I had ever encountered. Just as I despaired of ever getting a handle on it, he made a statement that brought it all together.

But then his explanation moved back to a level of detail that had me lost again. After a couple of minutes, another statement clarified everything. Clearly, there was a pattern here.

The best way I can describe it is by distinguishing between inductive and deductive thinking. Inductive thinking is the basis of scientific method—it builds from empirical evidence to a general idea that encompasses the evidence. In contrast, deductive thinking starts with the general idea and then reasons back down to the experience.

It’s only to be expected that a highly trained engineer would favor inductive thinking and feel at home in a world of technical detail. But the business world prefers that information be presented deductively: tell me what you’re going to tell me and then fill in the details.

When my client was explaining his business, I got lost in the trees.  It was only periodically that I would catch a glimpse of the forest.

Smart, well-trained engineers are the lifeblood of high technology companies, but without a strong business focus, there will be no company. Often, there is a split down the middle of the company, with the engineers on one side and the business people on the other.

Neither are terribly enamored of one another. Not speaking the same language, each has a hard time understanding what the other is saying. The cooperation that is essential for the success of the company is elusive.

One way to bridge the gap is for each to recognize they need to turn their thinking upside down. Going against their nature, the engineers need to present their conclusions first, and only then back them up with the detailed logic they’re so good at.

Likewise, the business people need to turn their thinking upside down and present the logic that leads to their conclusions. It will enhance their credibility with their more technical colleagues.

When both try to think like the other, communication and cooperation will improve. It’s not a bad approach to take whenever we’re confronted with people different than ourselves.

What Can Brain Science Teach Us About Nasal Spray and Accountability?

In a recent study, researchers found that the neuropeptide Oxytocin leads to more trusting behavior, even in relationships where there’s built in conflict. Subjects that received Oxytocin through a nasal spray displayed more trust in the classic game Prisoners’ Dilemma than those that were administered just a placebo.

In Prisoners’ Dilemma, the logical bet is for both prisoners to look out for themselves and not depend on the other one being trustworthy. It’s a particularly interesting game for business because it mirrors life in most organizations. Each member stands to benefit from collective action, if everyone else is trustworthy. But if they’re not, looking out for number one is often the safer strategy. Or as a client once put it, “If it’s a question of my team being successful or sending my son to college, it’s a no brainer.”

Because of this, leaders have long struggled with the issue of trust, but now through the miracle of modern science, we have a solution. Everyone just needs a little sniff of Oxytocin nasal spray, which is apparently available on the internet for as little as $29.95 for a two week supply. That’s quite a bit cheaper than hiring a team building consultant.

Tempting as it may be, this is precisely the kind of lesson we don’t want to learn from brain science. It’s not only that the same spray could be used for dishonest purposes–imagine if it were pumped into the showrooms of used car dealers, but that we’re drawing the wrong kind of lessons from the latest discoveries. The real learning is that our behavior is driven less by the nature of any situation we may find ourselves in, than by the way we think about the situation. Change the thinking and we change the behavior, and we can it do perfectly well without recourse to pharmaceuticals.

Recently, one of my clients was distressed by the unwillingness of his direct reports to be held accountable. As a result, he was focused on how to improve the organization’s measurement systems and how to establish clear consequences for non-performance. While the right kind of measures are critical for any business and while people should not be immune from the consequences of a failure to perform, accountability is less of a problem to be solved than it is a symptom of a more basic issue.

When I talked to the direct reports, they weren’t unwilling to be held accountable. They just didn’t agree with what they were being held accountable for. Their objectives were set top down, and they felt that they didn’t match the reality of their businesses. Much as they respected and even admired their boss, they were convinced he was too far removed from operations to understand what they were up against. The perceptions of each were different and in conflict.

Our logical minds are deluded into either/or thinking. In fact, one of Aristotle’s laws of logic mandates that there can be no middle ground–something is either the case or it is not.  Either the objectives are fair or they’re not. Either the boss is right or the employees are. But when we move beyond logic and incorporate how the mind works, we appreciate that both the manager and his direct reports are right, from their point of view.

The solution to this disconnect is not tighter measures and more draconian consequences. It’s impossible to build an infallible system for accountability and threats of punishment hardly motivate people to give their all for the business. Instead, the conflict should be taken as an opportunity to rethink the business from the top down.

Our ideas are instantiated  in neural networks arranged hierarchically in the brain. Those at higher levels drive decision-making and behavior at lower levels that are in harmony with them. If we get agreement at the highest levels, operational conflicts disappear.

When I pulled together my client and his team to address the conflict over accountability, we started by agreeing on a vision for the business and a strategy to achieve it.  With everyone in sync on what they wanted to accomplish and how best to do it, the objectives and how to ensure they were met just fell out naturally. Even better, the managers now worked toward achieving their objectives because they wanted to, not because they were afraid of the consequences if they didn’t. The result was a tighter and more efficient organization, and far more engagement from everyone. In just a quarter, performance improved significantly.

A squirt of nasal spray might have made the direct reports more trusting of their boss and the boss more trusting of his people. But it wouldn’t have made the direct reports able to achieve objectives that didn’t fit their businesses. The best chance of improving performance is to address how people think at the highest level.

A Revolutionary Idea

What if we’ve been wrong all this time? What if one of our most fundamental beliefs about human nature, based on scientific evidence, turns out to be mistaken?

This past week, scientists released news of the discovery of a 4.4 million year old fossil of one of our ancestors. Ardipithecus ramidus, or “Ardi” for short, was perhaps the last common ancestor of apes and humans. What’s so striking about Ardi is the teeth. They are considerably smaller and blunter than those of our chimpanzee relatives, and more like our own.

This little detail has huge implications. The belief that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that human nature is as red as they come, was bolstered by observations of chimpanzees ripping both monkeys and other chimpanzees to shreds with their teeth. Jane Goodall has even described in detail two females with a taste for the infants of their rivals.

When we believed we evolved directly from the chimp, it could only be assumed that the same blood lust was deep inside us as well. Despite the wonders of civilization and the ample evidence of altruistic behavior, we were seen to be violently competitive at heart. And if that is the nature of our species, we could be excused for feeling the need to summon up those instincts in our defense from time to time.

This view justified war and all of its horrors, for it is just a natural expression of who we are, perhaps amplified a bit by technology. As Frans de Waal puts it in his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, it became “hard to escape the notion that we are essentially ‘killer apes’ destined to wage war forever.”

This idea permeates all of our relationships, not just those of nation-states. Since our instinct is to be competitive, we must be constantly on our guard to ensure we’re not taken advantage of. When it comes to management, we’ve developed systems and practices to ensure that people do the right thing for the enterprise and not give into their instincts. We certainly cannot leave them to their own devices.

So cut throat competition becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. “If everyone is just out for themselves,” the thinking goes, “I must be too.”  All of the excesses of the corporate world can then be justified, from over the top executive compensation to shady mortgages. Caveat Emptor.

But the discovery of Ardi suggests a kinder and gentler human nature. Without those fangs, our ancestors couldn’t have been the blood thirsty creatures we’ve taken them for. Along with the more peaceful gorillas and bonobos, humans are now seen to be a cooperative species, and the violent chimpanzees as a mutation branching off the main trunk of evolution.

De Waal offers further evidence. In the Ultimatum Game, a staple of Behavioral Economics, human players display a preference for equity over financial gain. Neuroscientists have discovered mirror neurons that fire empathetically when we observe others feeling pain.

If we take the ramifications of Ardi’s discovery to heart, our idea of human nature has to be turned inside out, and very different behavior should follow.  We would have to start out trusting people and assuming they’re going to do the right thing. It would revolutionize the way we manage people.

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