By John Austin, Ph.D.
The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.—Friedrich Nietzsche
Where’s My Fork?
When you travel to another country, what is your expectation? Do you assume things will be mostly familiar to you or do you expect differences? Do the differences stress you or make you uncomfortable? How do you react to these differences? Do you seek out familiarity? Do you dive in and try to experience more of the differences?
I travel quite a bit for my work, and I’ve always been fascinated by the different default assumptions that other travelers make. We all fall back on defaults easily when faced with something new. Defaults are comforting. When the default option is not available, we can quickly get confused. We become like the American tourist I overheard while eating dinner at a restaurant in Beijing—a restaurant with mostly local customers—who asked “Where’s my fork?” in a confused tone when his food arrived. Chopsticks were definitely not on his mind when he signed up for the trip to China. Assuming others eat the way you do and conform to similar norms of dress, conversation, and etiquette are all examples of default assumptions we may have when we travel to another part of the world.
Of course, not everyone falls back on their defaults so quickly when traveling. Perhaps you do not venture far from your hotel or stick with well-known tourist group tours when traveling in new places. Alternately, perhaps you are someone who seeks experiences outside of the standard tourist or business traveler experiences.
The Najafi Global Mindset Institute at Thunderbird School of Global Management (now part of Arizona State University) has done some fascinating research on individual differences related to embracing what they call a leader’s global mindset.[i] They define a global mindset as a set of individual attributes that help influence individuals, groups, and organizations that are unlike the leader’s. Three groupings of attributes contribute to a person’s global mindset: intellectual, emotional, and social. Intellectual capital includes concepts such as cognitive complexity, global business savvy, and a cosmopolitan outlook. Emotional capital includes items such as quest for adventure, passion for diversity, and self-assurance. Social capital includes intercultural empathy, interpersonal impact, and diplomacy, for example.[ii]
I would make the argument that individuals who score highly on these attributes are individuals who have cultivated a skill and interest in breaking out of their default assumptions. They seek out difference. They thrive on surprise and adventure. Training yourself to ask a simple question can help trigger the sense making that comes naturally to these global adventurers among us.
What If You Are Wrong?
Success drives an expectation of further success. Not only do we expect past successes to be easily replicated in new settings and over time, but we also expect past successes to inherently inspire others to accept and adopt our ideas. We can find ourselves shocked when others do not agree with our ideas.
What we may be missing is that our desire to see our actions as successful may be leading us into a causal bias. In other words, we may see a cause-effect relationship between our initiative and success where it does not exist, and even if such a relationship does exist, others may not see it as clearly. Causal bias is in some ways a form of confirmation bias. We look for evidence of causal patterns that we expect to see, and we may discount other aspects of statistical relationships that muddle or even fully contradict the expected causal relationship.[iii]
Errors in assessing causal relationships emerge from our desire to see patterns and explain our environment but also from the nature of causality as something that must be inferred from our observation and data rather than something that can be directly observed.[iv] Thus, framing effects and confirmation biases take their place front and center in our sense making when confronted with questions of causality.
For any given situation, you have an assumed default prediction—the way you expect events to play out. Your default prediction is your starting mindset, and like any limited mindset, it is derived from your experience, your perception, and your hope. Because this is your default option, you will naturally seek evidence supporting it without giving too much thought to it. You sort and weigh data based on what you believe to be true.
Define Your Default Setting
Consider the question, “What do I expect will happen?” to explicitly reveal and define your default. Every situation has a default expectation. Some common ones include the following:
- You expect to succeed.
- You expect a certain person or group of people to be resistant.
- You expect to enjoy yourself (or alternately you expect to be bored/frustrated/disappointed/etc.).
- You expect to be able to finish your task.
- You assume you have all the information you need.
- You anticipate a clear outcome (it will be clear that you succeeded or failed).
- You expect others to be like you.
Design a Question to Test Your Default Assumption
What question can you ask that will help you test your assumption, and whom will you ask? We often enter new situations and, without thinking, identify how the situation is similar to other situations we’ve experienced because we naturally look for similarity and familiarity. We lean on our experience to make sense of the situation, which also means we are primed for the confirmation bias. If we look for similarity, we will find it, thanks to our well-developed ability to find patterns in any context. Before slipping into the routine of looking for similarity, train yourself to look for differences. Asking how things could turn out to be not as expected is one way to break this routine
When I step into an executive training session, I first look for something surprising. I’ve likely taught the content hundreds of times. I may have even taught in the same room dozens of times, so it is easy to see the familiar. These are the situations in which it is most important to remember to look for difference. These are the situations in which you will find yourself blindsided by something unexpected
Asking the right question can shift you into active processing mode. Hopefully, this inquiry reveals something new—potentially something that challenges your assumption about a default outcome. Now identify things to monitor to keep you honest moving forward. What are the early warning signs that the world may not be moving toward the default-predicted outcome? How will you track those signs? How often will you check them?
This post is adapted from my book, Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap.
[i] S. Beechler and Mansour Javidan, “Leading with a Global Mindset,” in Advances in International Management (Vol. 19), ed. Mansour Javidan, Michael A. Hitt, and R. M. Steers, The Global Mindset (New York: Elsevier, 2007).
[ii] The Global Mindset Inventory is a survey designed to help individuals identify which attributes are their strengths. I am a certified facilitator for the Global Mindset Inventory and would be glad to discuss this further if you are interested in training to better prepare your managers for global positions.
[iii] Tversky and Kahneman described illusory correlation as a form of availability bias in which two things are easy to recall together given their temporal closeness or frequency of occurrence. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability,” Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (1973): 207–32.
[iv] Obviously, if there are only two variables involved, it may be possible to observe with some level of confidence, but few of our social problems have only two variables. Our need to infer causation forms a cornerstone of the development of science and philosophy going back at least to Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739.
This article was originally posted at LinkedIn.
John Austin, Ph.D. is a faculty member of LEADERSHIP USA.