Fact or fiction?

by | Apr 15, 2024 | Leadership

Many of my clients appear to have an uncanny knack for mind reading. They can work out what other people are thinking and feeling purely from their facial expressions.

For example, one Director can tell if someone thinks she doesn’t deserve her position just by the look on someone’s face.

Not only that, many can draw conclusions from just a couple of observations. For example, if they’re not included in a meeting and their boss looks a bit preoccupied, they know that means their job is at risk.

Amazing, isn’t it?

If you haven’t caught on to me by now, I’m being tongue-in-cheek.

I do indeed work with many senior managers and directors who believe that people are thinking ill of them or that bad things are going to happen. However, these are “stories” they have created by making meaning from what others say or do.

Jennifer Garvey Berger, author of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, names five mindtraps we can fall into, one of which is the trap of simple stories.

Making up stories

As humans, we’re wired for stories to make sense of the world. Stories help us link disparate pieces of data, create a narrative about what happened and assign characters.

However, because we like everything tied up with a bow to give us a sense of certainty and safety, we’re at risk of making these stories too simple.

For example, we decide cause and effect – they look angry, so I must have done something wrong.

We assign heroes and villains, especially villains. For example, “they’re attacking me” or “they’ve got it in for me”.

We cherry-pick data that reinforces what we believe and ignore what doesn’t. For example, Elizabeth*, a senior manager, zoned in on instances where her boss didn’t pay due respect to her and chose not to pay attention to her glowing performance review or times when her boss praised her.

Past over present

What’s particularly important to call out here is that what we see is more about what we’ve experienced before than what’s in front of us. Our brain is constantly predicting what’s going to happen next based on our past experiences, giving particular weight to experiences which had a negative impact on us.

There is also research that tells us that, if we feel anxious or fearful, we are likely to misread cues, to assume threat where there is none.

For example, Elizabeth’s upbringing meant she was particularly vigilant for signs of being berated and belittled. She was extremely alert to expressions of what she had previously experienced as anger or disappointment which could result in her feeling anxiety or even panic.

How to avoid the pitfalls of your mind

Here are four approaches to navigating ways of thinking that may be limiting you :

1) Fact not fiction

What is fact, rather than interpretation? For example, you believe your manager doesn’t value you because they keep rescheduling 1-1s with you. The fact is that they have rescheduled the meeting twice. That’s the long and short of it. Move on to the next three suggestions.

2) Them not you

What if their behaviour has nothing to do with you? What if their dog has died, or they’ve had a bad night’s sleep? Or what if their seemingly aggressive behaviour is because they’re consumed by the fear of failure?

As Mo Gawdat writes in Solve for Happy, we act as though we’re the star of our own movie, but most of what happens around us isn’t about us at all!

3) Make up other stories.

Garvey Berger suggests making up at least 3 different stories about a situation, especially when you’re convinced you’re right.

For example, if your client hasn’t returned your calls and you think it’s because you cocked up your pitch, different stories could be : their attention has been consumed by a family crisis, they’re under pressure to meet a deadline, or they’ve had a budget freeze.

4) Reach out

One of the best ways to challenge your stories is to check your assumptions with others.

I heard a super example of this recently from Jane*, a Director. Shortly after being promoted, Jane had attended her first leadership team meeting and noticed a look of shock on a colleague’s face. She read this as meaning they didn’t think she deserved to be promoted.

Recently, this colleague volunteered that she had been shocked, but only because she hadn’t known because there hadn’t been a prior announcement. She was actually delighted that Jane had been promoted and thought it should have come earlier.

*Elizabeth and Jane are fictional leaders based on real-life clients

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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