We all want to cultivate the very best in each of our team members, but sometimes our own thinking is the rate-limiting factor. Sometimes we have stories or stereotypes that impact our perceptions, our attitude and our behaviors. As a leader it’s important to be aware of these stories and stereotypes, because they can impact the assignments we give and even how we assess the final results.

The underlying problem is a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” We form an opinion (or story) about how the world works and then tend to see only information that confirms that point of view. The result is a limited view that skews our perception and interpretation of people, situations, and interactions. It can also inadvertently inhibit performance and decision making processes by keeping us from coming to each situation and interaction with an open mind.

For example, if our internal story is that a particular colleague is “cautious,” that might affect how we interpret the questions he asks about the company’s new strategy, seeing them as a sign that he is holding back, rather than that he is moving forward toward implementation.  Or if we have a story that a junior colleague is inexperienced, we might be inclined to dismiss her suggestions as naive before really giving them a chance.

Make A Conscious Effort To Shift Our Internal Stories

Once we become aware of our internal stories about our colleagues, we can make a conscious effort to shift them.

Several years ago, I worked on a volunteer project with a person whom I saw as not very smart. She was slow to grasp my ideas, and we saw the world very differently. When I was certain that the team needed to go with Plan A, she would be equally committed to Plan B. It was very frustrating – and easy to fall into “I’m right, she’s wrong” thinking.

One day on the way to work, I realized that I’d spent most of my commute steaming about how she was getting in the way of progress. I was so engulfed in my story about her (that she was not very smart, ineffective, stubborn, short-sighted, etc.), that I was cranky and defensive toward her before we were even together!

Noticing this allowed me to step back, interrupt the pattern, and initiate a new plan for myself. I made a conscious effort to spend the rest of that commute focusing on her positive attributes. I made myself list at least 10 things I admired about her: skills she had, experience she brought to our work, perspectives she had that I didn’t, the values she was representing on the team, etc. When I arrived at our meeting, I was much more open to hearing her point of view and working with her to find a solution we both believed in. Taking that time to focus on her positive qualities – to change my story about her – created a space in me to be more present and open to her perspective. It also changed how I shared my ideas, offering them as possibilities rather than “the right answer, and taking time to explain my thinking.  My new attitude contributed to a very different working relationship.  We were able to collaborate and develop a plan that we could both support.

Find Strategies To Break The Cycle

This simple, yet profound shift, continues to be an effective practice for me today when I find myself at odds with a colleague or client. It’s natural to slip into “right/wrong” thinking when we’re confronted with a difference, and then to stereotype the “other” in some way.  Finding strategies to break this cycle is key to effective collaboration.

Your examples may not be as extreme, but I invite you to consider the stories, stereotypes, and filters through which you view your team members. Do you see someone as “young and inexperienced”, “introverted”, or “a real go-getter”? Do you label anyone on your team as “the cautious one” or “the risk taker” — and if so, what impact might these labels have on your interactions? What data might you be missing when you view them through that lens? In what ways might your biases be stopping you from collaborating effectively, or offering them opportunities for participation and growth?

Sharing Your Stories

I’d love to hear your stories as you think about this, as well as any practices you use to open up to different points of view among your colleagues, so that everyone can have better, more productive and more satisfying lives at work.

Want some help thinking it through?  Feel free to schedule 30 minutes on my calendar.

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