How Leaders Jump To Conclusions and What To Do About It

How Leaders Jump To Conclusions and What To Do About It

Written by Ron May and Kaylee Somerville


Our experience at work involves day-to-day interactions and solving problems, among many things. Yet, our mindset often gets in the way of correctly interpreting our conversations and interactions with others. How we separate facts in our interactions with others might positively influence our decision-making and interactions, thus helping us become better employees, leaders, and friends. 



The context: 

To better understand this phenomenon, consider the following brain teaser first sent to Albert Einstein from his friend Max Wertheimer who was a founder in the psychology discipline of Gestalt: 


An amoeba propagates by simple division: each split takes three minutes to complete. When an amoeba is put into a glass container with a nutrient fluid, the container is full of amoebas in one hour. How long would it take for the container to be filled if we start with not one amoeba but two? 


Without any other insight we could use to solve the problem, we might simply indicate that if one amoeba takes an hour to fill the container, then two will take half as long or 30 minutes. Easy. But wait, maybe our intuition is wrong. Perhaps, the whole construct is a false perception and assumption. If we examine the details, there might be a different and correct result. 



The solution: 

1) The container is full of amoebas in one hour when starting with one amoeba. 


2) The splitting process takes three minutes to complete. 


3) So, in 60 minutes or one hour, the amoeba splits 20 times. Determine by dividing 60 minutes by three minutes. 


4) Therefore, after 20 Splits: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, 4,096, 8,192, 16,384, 32,768, 65,536, 131,072, 262,144, 524,288, the container is full at 1,048,576 amoebas. 


How does this result change when starting with two amoebas? Well, starting with two amoebas the splits reveal: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, 4,096, 8,192, 16,384, 32,768, 65,536, 131,072, 262,144, 524,288, the container is full at 1,048,576 amoebas. The container will be full after 19 splits. 


In reality, only one less split is necessary to fill the container, therefore saving a paltry three minutes. Surprisingly, the container is full after the long-awaited fifty-seven minutes and not the thirty-minute assumption. 


Using our intuition, we incorrectly assume information and jump to conclusions without thoroughly considering the problem. We use our beliefs to choose the data, thinking that doubling the amoebas would equal half the time. 



Jumping the Ladder of Inference 

This thinking frequently occurs in everyday life. Peter Senge and Chris Argyris explain this well, showing how we climb the “Ladder of Inference” to solve problems. They suggest an accurate method of problem-solving is to: 


1) Experience the data. 


2) Select important information. 


3) Interpret the information. 


4) Add assumptions if necessary. 


5) Make conclusions. 


6) Develop beliefs based on the information. 


7) Take action. 


But often, this process is not what we use. We tend to prioritize our beliefs, and these beliefs shape how we choose the data we use to solve problems. We refer to this as the reflexive loop. Our beliefs shape what data we select. We then jump to conclusions and cause problems in accurately measuring and solving the problem. 



Image From: How to REALLY Listen: Reduce Conflict by Staying Low on the Ladder of Inference — TalentGrow LLC: Leadership development, workplace communication workshops, team-building facilitation, and speaking



Theory in practice 

We apply this reasoning to other business processes routinely. Consider an outcome of productivity improvement. Similarly to how we think adding one amoeba halves the time, we might think that we can dramatically improve productivity by simply adding workers. When the result is not what we initially expected, we make assumptions: that people involved are not performing productively or are not motivated to succeed. A solution might be to change the people through training, closer supervision, or to even get new people. 


Additionally, in this effort, we begin to ask pointed and directive questions. We might ask which workers are slow, how productivity is measured, and what additional factors might be driving the rate of work. 


Relating this errant thinking to the amoeba problem, would it make sense to ask why the amoebas are growing at the rate they are or why the split takes three minutes to complete? We might even question why we chose amoebas versus any other single-celled animal. None of these questions are aligned with the solution. The critical information was simply the time it takes to split the amoebas and the length it takes to fill a container. 


Yet, in many work decisions, we gather extraneous data and build lofty expectations without focusing on the specific data to solve the problem. These inquiries can feel like blame as to why the problem exists to the person answering the questions. 


To demonstrate this process, I offer an opportunity of a leader I know who related his experience. The leader came into a room of employees where most people were engaged in a lively conversation about a current project they were involved in. A person he was aware had has some difficulty in work performance was simply sitting in the room on the side and was not participating in the conversation. The leader walked over to the individual and started a one-way directive about being more involved. The employee looked at the leader with tears in his eyes and said he needed to go home as he was just informed that his dog was hit by a car. He told the leader he was waiting for him to let him know. 


He was devastated. Then he looked around and realized that no one had observed their colleague in his time of need. The situation was untenable. He had jumped to an answer as to why the employee was disengaged. This moment was a tough reflection for him. He wished he had asked a question as opposed to stating his position. He also wished that his team would have been more inclusive in their behavior regardless of the individual’s history. 




In life, we typically only get a portion of the info we need to make a judgment. As we climb the ladder of inference, we often fill the blanks in a negative way and use our personal beliefs to select the data we use to solve the problem.


1) Check your assumptions. Always question your intuition and separate facts from assumptions before you prioritize your beliefs.


2) Ask open-ended questions.Open-ended questions that are not leading are essential to this learning. The questions should be thoughtful and aligned with problem solutions. If you require context setting, declare this intent but do not make it part of the solution process.


3) Stop filling in the blanks in a negative way. Start problem-solving with compassionfor those involved. Bring people into the process and do not have the process work for some and not the whole. Doing so will help strengthen the connections you have and the ones that are being newly created.




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When Leadership Gets In The Way Of A Cultural Turnaround

When Leadership Gets In The Way Of A Cultural Turnaround

Written by Riverbank Executive Consultant, Ron May


Is it possible to initiate a successful cultural turnaround when you are part of the reason the organization is in the malaise it finds itself? The following is a good description of a difficult situation an organization encountered recently. 


The Situation 

Imagine yourself as a senior-level leader in an organization that has become distrustful of its more senior leadership, including you. You work diligently every day, trying to get all required activity accomplished with people that are both disillusioned and, worse yet, disengaged. There are complaints about lack of support from above, which you have come to recognize and agree with over time. Despite this discontentment, any new direction is unwelcome by the organization. Matters have worsened as the current state of the culture has deteriorated to a point where leaders doubt that any efforts will be able to correct the organization’s direction and re-route the culture to a pathway of success. 


This situation existed in a large organization in which employees were overwhelmingly unhappy with the current state of the culture. Not everyone was always treated with respect, and some employees were holding these hurt feelings under the surface of their daily interactions. The stifling organizational culture became evident through engagement surveys, operational metrics, and employee performance criteria. There seemed to be no clear route to establish a positive fundamental change in the culture. All efforts that were meant to improve the environment were met with pushback and therefore failed to gain enough traction and support to generate any real positive impact or long-term change. 


A Surprising Discovery 

Nevertheless, not everyone in the organization had completely lost hope. Though many individuals were disengaged, they were still willing to voice their displeasure. Moreover, although the group as a whole was seemingly dysfunctional, they still cared for each other and their operation. They wanted things to be better and yearned for a time when they had more ability to influence not just what was accomplished but how it was accomplished. They remained hopeful of the possibility of improvement for their organization and persistently asked for changes to be made. 


The Opportunity 

The description of the situation is one of crisis. It was a crisis of leadership and a crisis of an organization not being resilient to face the challenges of the future. Thankfully, grit was still apparent in the way employees continued to take pride in their work. However, the marketplace was changing for the organization’s product, and the people could not imagine what they could do collectively to face any impending adverse outcome. Fear is a detrimental reaction to changes of any sort. As John P. Kotter stated in his book The Heart of Change, people “do little to help start a change effort because we feel powerless to do so….In some situations, the constraints and lack of power are overwhelming. Nevertheless, action is often possible.” In this case, the action came from a critical mass of employees being willing to pivot. As Robert E. Quinn states in his book The Positive Organization, where the leader “allows the personal to become public,” it “is the act of responsibility that initiates cultural change and reforms organizations.” 



The senior-level leader of the organization reflected upon his behaviors which were holding back the cultural shift that lower-level employees desired for the entire organization. The following are actions that were taken to move the organization toward a new culture. 


First, the leader took on the challenge of admitting things could be better and then recognized his involvement in the faltering organization and the lack of change despite consistent complaints and disengagement. 


Next, a practice of listening to everyone in the organization was embraced. Employees at all levels of the organization who wanted to participate in the culture shift were included. Employees were invited to participate in workgroups to discuss how to improve the way in which work was accomplished. This included built-in time to work on issues outside of their daily tasks. Giving everyone the opportunity to voice their opinions created a sense of collective strength and inclusion. As leaders listened and employees were given the opportunity to impact their own work, cultural change began to occur. 


The intent was to incorporate a practice into their daily work that would give employees who were most affected by the issues the ability to help resolve them. No issue was off-limits. Every issue raised was addressed in some form. 

There were people that refused to participate. But those that were willing were supported and recognized for the positive behaviors envisioned in the new culture. 

As Jane E. Dutton and Monica C. Worline state in their book Awakening Compassion at Work, “When we identify with others, we are more likely to feel empathy for them and more willing to take compassionate action on their behalf.” 

The action of working together at all levels on an important issue that others have raised clearly demonstrates empathy and compassion. When trust across levels is built, respect for others’ individual contributions is increased. Hope returns, and a vision of a collective future can be articulated. 



1) It is difficult to change course on a defective culture without inspiration. A leader cannot generally do this on their own. Support from the most senior leadership team is essential and a deep sense of commitment to change is important. 


2) Taking the opportunity to begin a conversation with a team of people who are disengaged and perhaps angry is difficult. Do not expect the employee base to begin this conversation. 


3) It is best to have a roadmap of where you are and how you want to proceed. Gather a group together that is willing to participate in the development of a new vision for the culture of the organization. Let them help build the vision for the future; not everything should fall on one individual alone. Let early adopters influence others to join in the momentum that is being built. 


4) There will be trust issues. Build-in some easy actions to achieve early success. Show the involvement is real and highly encouraged and explain that this is an important step in the change, of course, that is underway. Follow through at every step. A misstep early on will be devastating to the trust being built. 


5) Take time to communicate. Communicate what you are going to do, communicate while you are doing it, and then communicate and celebrate when things are accomplished. Celebrate with everyone. Keep in mind that although you are tired of the message you are communicating, it is possible that others are just starting to hear it. 


6) Sustainability should be planned for and built into the effort from the beginning. The systems, procedures, and practices should be aligned with the culture being built. It is easier to create change one action at a time and to view these efforts as part of a project as opposed to a new way of accomplishing work. Culture change is dependent upon adopting the manner in which things get done, not just the accomplishment. Some most intransient people will simply hold out until this change process is integrated into the organization’s normal business to point out flaws in sustaining the implementation. 



Culture Is Not A Given 

Culture should not be thought of as a static condition of an organization. Many things change over time. The worst outcome is when the people of an organization assume that the best of what they want in their culture will always be there without deliberately working to maintain it. Care for the culture is accentuated by caring for each other.