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By Steve Kelman

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'The best leaders allow themselves to be persuaded'

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): Businessman with arrows pointing left and right.

"When we think of great leaders, certain characteristics come to mind," writes Al Pittampalli in a post on the wonderful Harvard Business Review website.

"They 'trust their gut,' 'stay the course,' and 'prove others wrong,'" continues Pittampalli, whose new book is called Persuadable. "They aren't 'pushovers,' and they certainly don't 'flip-flop.' But this archetype is terribly outdated. Having spent three years studying many of the world's most successful leaders… I've learned one surprising thing they have in common: a willingness to be persuaded."

Do leaders who are more willing to be persuaded do better at displaying good judgment than those who aren't? It's hard to get good evidence on this question as a general proposition. But a classic study by Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania of the accuracy of expert predictions about the future -- which at least is likely to be a marker of good judgment in general -- found that those who did best were more willing to listen to new information and adjust their predictions accordingly, rather than being guided by grand theories they then applied to specific situations.

One of the biggest enemies of good judgment is something psychologists call "confirmation bias," which is the human tendency to discount new information that contradicts ideas we already hold. When new information comes in that supports our pre-existing biases, we tend to accept it gladly -- but if it doesn't, we tend to discount it.

John Maynard Keynes famously said, "When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" The unfortunate answer is that most people challenge the facts.

In one depressing laboratory study, when subjects who were pro- and anti-capital punishment each read two studies, one that supported and one that opposed capital punishment, they did not react by seeing there were two sides to the story and hence becoming more moderate in their views. In fact, the opposite occurred: reading the two studies made the supporters and opponents both stronger in their original beliefs! The reason is that the advocate of each position readily accepted the study supporting their prior belief, while poking holes in the one that didn't.

And while confirmation bias is a general human tendency, it may be even stronger among leaders, who are likely to have higher confidence in their own views.

Pittampalli suggests several ways to open your mind up to being persuaded. One is to recall what he refers to as "moments of opacity," when you can't see a situation clearly, or when something you were so sure was right turned out to be wrong. Persuadable leaders are more conscious of moments of opacity. "Whenever they're feeling a little too confident or certain, they remind themselves about past moments of opacity," Pittampalli writes, "which motivates them to seek outside counsel and consider other points of view even when they don't feel naturally inclined to do so do so."

Second, Pittampalli notes that "there is no better way to edge closer to the truth than to argue with people who disagree with you. But usually, when we engage in this way, we focus on defending our positions." He suggests that instead, we should imagine a dial representing how confident we are in the opinion we are arguing for, and be willing to adjust the dial in the direction of less confidence when we hear a good argument.

His third suggestion is to be willing to "kill your darlings."

"Once you've opened the door to feedback and debate, you may find that the evidence is piling up against your previously held view," Pittampalli writes. "The next step is to actually be willing to change your mind. That can be difficult when it comes to beliefs to which we've become attached. … The quicker you recognize and acknowledge that an idea (even a beloved one) is unworkable, the quicker you can move on to the right course of action."

Unfortunately, these suggestions all fall into the category, "Easy to say, hard to do." They go against the ways our minds tend naturally to function. But that also means the rewards are likely to be all the greater for those who are able to focus, and work to overcome limitations to which we are all prone.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 14, 2016 at 3:09 PM


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Reader comments

Tue, Mar 15, 2016 Dave

Nice column Steve. You're right, easier to say than to do. Dave

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