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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Blinded by Performance

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“In my own little corner in my own little chair I can be whatever I want to be.”

Richard Rogers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) in Cinderella.

In the fairy tale, Cinderella is reacting to her life of cruel servitude at the hands of her step-mother and step-sisters as she dreams of being in a better place and time where her current trials and tribulations vanish. Humans have the ability, we don’t know if it is unique to us but I suspect not, to dream of better places and better times, sometimes with incredible intensity. But we also have the ability, in fact we are somewhat hardwired to be susceptible to illusion and misdirection. And it appears that the better we are at dreaming of lofty goals, that better place and time, we do not necessarily perceive all that is currently happening around us.   

Can anyone dispute that the brain is susceptible to misdirection and to misinterpretation of incoming information? One study that drives home that point was done when neuroscientists teamed up with magicians in order to understand more precisely what magicians have known for very long time, the brain can be subject to misdirection. Exactly how that is done is only now coming to light (Nov. 2008, Nature Reviews Neuroscience). Within the brain there are two distinct groups of cells that come into play when one is concentrating on a matter at hand. One group of cells helps the individual focus on what is being paid attention to, while the other group suppresses interest in everything else. The skillful magician is able to focus your attention to where he wants it so that the “magic” can happen where you are not focusing. As is turns out the magic is helped by the wiring of the brain which suppressing incoming information from where you are not focusing. The scientists in this study are hoping to move the research from the lab into the classroom to help children and others with attention deficit, autism and traumatic brain injury, all those who have trouble focusing on just one thing.

But I found myself going in the opposite direction, contemplating the impact of those brain structures on human decision making and those whose focus is primarily only on just one thing, or a very small number of things as they consider decisions. Magic is playing off the tendency that people have to assume cause and effect, a cause (I saw it with my own eyes) and an effect (a sense of wonder and surprise). What goes unnoticed to a magician is just as important as what gets noticed. At SUNY College of Optometry in NYC (where else would you study illusions?), it has been found that “when you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases and your attention to everything else decreases”. Information that is deemed irrelevant by the brain is not only ignored it is not even perceived. Presto-chango magic has occurred. 

“I can make a 10% return on my investment, year-in and year-out? Why that would be magical.” And so we can speculate on some of the mechanisms that caused investors to focus on the benefits of investing with Bernie Maddoff while not perceiving how unlikely that return on investment actually was by examining other factors.  Did their sharp focus on returns blind them to other signs that all was not right? It is unlikely that was only mechanism at play, in fact there were many other mechanism at play as well (e.g. exclusivity, personal charisma) but one has to wonder if the brain itself, the way we function had a part as well.

Growth was the magic formula of Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International Ltd., and former Tyco finance chief Mark Swartz. Were investors and Wall Street so completely focused on the historical record of acquisitions and top-line growth that they could not see that the leveraging that was going on and the debt that was accumulating was not serviceable? Did they overlook the stock options that enriched Mr. Kozlowski and his inner circle because other things were being focused upon and those other things were then deemed irrelevant information, largely ignored? And in the context of brain systems do we have a tendency to ignore that which we are not paying close attention to, because our focus is held elsewhere?

Bay-of-Pigs thinking, often described as when there is pressure to conform to the group, so as not to be branded an outcast or disloyal, got its name after the geographic location in Cuba that was the site of a failed invasion. Bay-of-Pigs thinking has come to epitomize everything that is wrong with group decision-making and there have been very deliberate methodologies developed to avoid Bay-of-Pigs type thinking in corporate decision-making. But perhaps there was another characteristic at play as well during deliberations of whether or not to invade Cuba. That the group was so intent on their goal that they could not perceive, or give adequate weight to the evidence that was right in front of them, that the invasion would most likely fail? That other evidence was not focused upon, and so perhaps it ended up being ignored by the decision-makers.

In a more routine office environment when a manager or management team has made up its mind on a topic or goal and begins to concentrate on the topic at hand perhaps some of the same mechanisms take over, intense concentration on one issue causing the exclusion or disregarding of other relevant information.  And just as the magician’s trick becomes easily explainable when you can see behind the smoke and mirrors, organization decision-making can be vastly improved by following some relatively simple guidelines.

  • Respectful treatment. Each person involved in the decision-making will have different viewpoints, partially driven by differences in their world-view and perspectives. Rather than disregarding those who might be different from the majority view, you should embrace the diversity of thought represented.
  • People involved in the decision are able to give independent judgments that are based on inclusivity of participation not exclusivity.
  • Informed decision-making. Those asked to make decisions have available as much relevant information as possible in order to make informed decisions. 
  • During deliberations each person invited to contribute to the decision-making process should have an equal weight or ability to influence the outcome. The decision should not rest simply on one person’s viewpoint at this stage of the process.
  • Flexibility should be designed into the process to accommodate a changing environment.
  • Decision-makers should be held accountable not only to the organization for their decisions but also to the decision-making process agreed upon.
  • Decisions should be time bound, not simply an aspiration of something that should happen sometime in the future.  Realistic deadlines are necessary throughout the process.
  • While goals arising from decisions should be challenging they need to be perceived as achievable with a clear plan of how to move from the current condition to the desired state.

We are all products of our environment and of our natural state or evolution. By understanding how the environment and our physiology affects us, how we will respond to its various stimuli, we are in a much better position to understand the magical properties of that species called homo sapiens sapiens. Dreaming of better places and times is part of what has moved us over the eons out of the savannah and into the suburbs, and while we may not be able to completely control our physiology and in many instances it may not be in our best interests to do so, neither should we blindly react to the environmental stimuli that impinges on us, perhaps with illusion or misdirection.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 20, 2009 at 9:59 am

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