Leaders, examine your polluted perceptions.

Leaders practice cognitive generosity. The ability to turn off autopilot and take the time to honestly examine our polluted perceptions. ~Christena Cleveland

Speed seems to have become a virtue. How fast can we do work, accomplish tasks, check items off a to-do list. In order to achieve “speed” we use the part of our brain that allows us to categorize and then act on assumptions based upon those categories. What’s the price we’re paying for all this categorizing?

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow says that we have two modes of thought. System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. System 2 is of course useful, but it requires more effort and energy to engage. Consequently, System 2 looks for shortcuts at the directive of System 1. We become cognitively lazy and we rely on categorizing.

Here’s an example from Kehneman

1. All roses are flowers. 2. Some flowers fade quickly. 3. Therefore, some roses fade quickly.

This was considered by a large majority of college students to be correct. Of course, it isn’t.

Kehneman says that, “it turns out that when people first come to believe a false statement, they are very likely to believe arguments that support it; this is the basis for confirmation bias.”

Unfortunately, we use this same categorizing shortcut when thinking of individuals and groups of people. I have met with numerous leaders who have categorized members of their staff because of their gender, their race, their alma mater, etc. They draw conclusions about the individual based upon the perceptions of the group(s) to which they belong.

Cognitive Generosity

Developing a more positive perception of other people and groups was coined by Jim Caldwell as cognitive generosity says Christena Cleveland. Numerous research studies conclude that we tend to think less generously of people and groups we are not familiar with, or who we perceive to be very different from us. Cognitive generosity intentionally reverses this process, helping us consciously think better – and so likely more honestly – about these same people and groups.

Build Your Cognitive Generosity

Social psychologist, Christena Cleveland, suggests this exercise to develop your cognitive generosity. It requires some intentional System 2 thinking.

  1. Make a list of different cultural groups and write down what you think (really think, not what you would ideally like to think) about them.
  2. Now that you’ve named the specific biases you hold, you can be on the lookout for them as you go about your day.
  3. When you are tempted to think or speak one of the biases on your list, stop, name it as a bias and not a truth, and correct it.

Lead with bold grace and practice cognitive generosity. Let’s turn off autopilot and take the time to honestly examine our polluted perceptions.

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