Three Dangerous Biases CEOs Need To Overcome

There are three biases, mental blocks, that prevent leaders from taking advantage of revolutionary opportunities that are readily available.

My work focuses on helping CEOs and their teams make their organizations healthier and more effective. I’m not afraid to admit that most of what I advocate is ridiculously simple. Clients who buy into it are always shocked that such basic concepts can have such a transformational impact on culture and performance.

Yet, some CEOs can’t seem to embrace the simple disciplines of organizational health. Years ago, I discovered that there are three biases, mental blocks, that prevent leaders from taking advantage of revolutionary opportunities that are readily available.

Understanding these biases and making an honest self-assessment is the first step that CEOs can take to overcome them.

The Sophistication Bias. Many CEOs struggle to embrace practical concepts that they deem too simple to be difference-making. They ignore simple disciplines in search of something more complex, innovative or intellectually clever. They are like the high school football coach who would rather implement a trendy new offense than teach his players how to block and tackle.

Simple disciplines that “sophisticated” executives overlook include things like building a functional team of leaders who trust one another, over-communicating key messages to employees and running focused meetings. CEOs who struggle with sophistication bias prefer to focus on more complex solutions to what they believe to be complicated problems (e.g., A.I., CRM systems and Big Data).

Again and again, I’ve found that successful CEOs are those who humble themselves to master the simpler disciplines.

The Adrenaline Bias. Many CEOs struggle with patience. (Count me as one of them.) They are drawn to solutions that will have the most immediate impact, even if those solutions don’t address the underlying issues in the organization. For instance, instead of taking a few months to build a team and establish a real culture of accountability, they opt to let go of an underperforming executive and bring in someone new. Or instead of rebuilding a product to meet the needs of customers, they acquire a company to get to market faster.

When the solution falls short of expectations, they search for another short-term fix and another. Instead, they need to embrace the racecar driver axiom, “you have to slow down to go fast.” They need to take the time necessary to address underlying causes of problems rather than settle for immediate remedies that only address symptoms.

The Quantification Bias. It always amazes me that many leaders will cast aside good ideas simply because they can’t reliably calculate their ROI. That’s like refusing to exercise because your scale is broken and you can’t measure how much weight you’re losing. What metric-focused CEOs fail to understand is that the most important undertakings cannot be easily justified by quantitative analysis. They require intuition, judgment and risk, things all great leaders can learn to embrace.

Some executives struggle with this even after they’ve implemented a new program and experienced its benefits. Still, they demand a metric, and if there is none, they look for more measurable solutions. This leads them to avoid critical endeavors around cultural and behavioral matters because their results are impossible to quantify precisely.

Leaders who want to transform their organizations must make decisions with one thing in mind: impact. They must pursue opportunities for impact regardless of whether it satisfies the biases in how they think. If they are bent on solutions that seem sophisticated, can be immediately implemented or are naturally easy to quantify, they will miss out on some of the most reliable and simple avenues for organizational improvement. Unbiased executives will be humble enough, patient enough and intuitive enough to embrace the simple but powerful concepts that transform ordinary companies into extraordinary ones.


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