How to Undo Your Stinking Thinking

I have to thank my younger brother Eric for sharing the term “Stinking Thinking” with me. To me,  Stinking Thinking is that place we all get to from time to time that cannot quite be called foolishness, but you can sure see it from there. You can actually feel that your logic is off, but you have been too loud or too insistent, and now you are stuck in your line of thinking. Those times when folks might say to you, “have you been drinking?” and you haven’t had a libation in weeks. Stinking Thinking is when others are trying to get through to us that our line of reasoning just isn’t resonating. Have you ever been there?  I know I sure have.  I can remember years ago when I really wanted a sports car. I talked it up at work and convinced my wife we could afford it. I looked and looked for just the right car that made just the right statement.  I finally found a jet black, low miles, 5 speed Mazda RX7 that I could not live without.One Saturday my wife took our minivan and left me at home with our 3 adorable children, which mean that when I had to leave the house I needed to get myself and all three kids in the 2-seat sports car….I think you get the picture.

WHAT WAS I THINKING? A relatively intelligent, socially functional, hard working person just made a decision to buy a car that didn’t fit into his lifestyle at the time…this is Stinking Thinking.

Since our thinking has such a profound effect on our judgment, I researched how many decisions the average person makes in a day. The popular number on the internet is 35,000. This number is quoted by sources like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Stanford University.  I couldn’t validate that number from any recent study that was peer reviewed. Since I can not support the number 35,000 from the literature, can we agree, for argument's sake, leaders make lots of decisions every day?

The actual number of decisions we make in a day is not nearly as important as the quality of the important ones.

Regardless of the decision-making model you use (there are hundreds of them), they all begin with some input. Decision-making processes are active and continually evolving.  Since leadership brings with it both responsibility and accountability, there is no one better than you, the leader, to assess and clarify the kind of data you want to bring into your process.

“It is possible to obtain a high score on an intelligence test and then turn to astrology or palm reading when making decision” -Diane Halpern

The time to really assess if a decision is good or not is at the beginning of the process. Decision making should not turn into PowerBall Lottery where you just pull in some random data points and check your numbers in the morning. And yet in my work with leaders, I see this all too often. Really smart, highly educated, likable folks do really silly things. Often times the quote I hear behind closed doors is, “I can’t believe I really did that." While the assessment is of the decision result, as we dig deep into the situation we find that at the core of the misjudgment are often faulty input assumptions.

Since we all succumb to this irrationality from time to time, I wonder what your Stinking Thinking usually looks like.

Take this Decision Making Quiz

Which of these Stinking Thinking traps do you fall into most often?
  1. I am good at predicting the future
  2. My opinion matters more
  3. I have an excellent memory
  4. I am reacting to a single data point
  5. I am being completely rational

Here are some of the more common pitfalls I observe from the quiz above.

I Can Predict the Future

In the book The Undoing Project author Michael Lewis does a masterful job of describing the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  In the first chapter of the book, he tells the story of Daryl Morley whose job it was in 2006 to predict how a 19 year old  basketball player would perform in the NBA. Morley equated this to predicting where the price of oil will be in 10 years. Even though Morley had a statistical mind and the tools of an expert, his boss would want certainty from him for the decisions he was making on the team's draft choices. “I have to tell him certainty ain’t coming."

So many leaders, who have had so much success can fall into the trap that based upon past experiences when they got it right.

My Opinion Matters More

The person with the most ____________ (money, experience, knowledge, positional power, authority, credibility) knows the best.  You start to think that since you are the most influential your opinion carries more weight. Bringing biases to the input part of the decision-making process is where it gets off track. While on the surface few leaders would ever make any of these self-proclamations, the evidence to support this kind of thinking is all around.

The same result can occur in groups. The psychological term is “enclave deliberation.” What happens during enclave deliberation is that as a group of like-minded people discuss opinions with each other, the conversation becomes more extreme. I recently entered into a climate change discussion with a small group of folks where a vocal supporter of the issue started the discussion with “anyone who disagrees with the evidence that science brings is just a fool.” How is that for starting an open dialogue with a team?

Experts suffer from this pitfall as well. Noted psychologist Amos Tversky (of Prospect Theory fame) said, “whenever there is a simple error that most laymen fall for, there is always a slightly more sophisticated version of the same problem that experts fall for.”

My Memory is Perfect

This one probably speaks for itself.

Ten years after the brutal attacks on the twin towers on September 11, 2001 researchers asked people what they remembered about the events of that day. While the details of the memories were better than on an “ordinary” day, they were not completely accurate. Turns out humans fill in missing information with what fits their own belief system.

The Issue Has Become My Identity

Research has shown that people are more confident about being right when the events are highly emotional. People believe that their memory for highly emotional events is better than it is. As the issue at hand becomes more personal, the emotion increases, people start to identify with their issue. I think we are seeing this as a dividing factor in our own country right now. Rather than stepping back and thinking they are becoming emotionally attached to a single issue that is defining them, the thought now is that if you attack the issue, you are attacking me personally. This causes polarity.

I Am Being Completely Rational

"It's not how smart you are that matters, what really counts is how you are smart." -Howard Gardner When our thinking has evolved to the point that we have become so prideful that there is no space to be wrong, we rationalize to support a preferred conclusion.  As leaders, when we get to thinking that there is no possible way we wrong, all sorts of warning lights should flash in our heads.

It turns out that rationalization is not always deliberate. People don’t intend to do it, but it is insidious and can creep up on you. Thinking we have omniscience is a dangerous human fallacy that can quickly lead to foolishness.

Undoing your Stinking Thinking

Here are 5 methods that you can use to undo your Stinking Thinking

  1. Let go of the past - Just because you were successful in doing something 15 years ago doesn’t mean that the world stopped turning. Use your experience to inform your decision about what is different in the situation and circumstance from your past achievement.
  2. Identify the real problem - My friend Dr. Patricia Scott wrote a great book called, “Getting a Squirrel to Focus." It is way too easy for us to become distracted on ancillary issues that we forget what the real thing is we are deciding.
  3. Stop and ask - Barbara Kingsolver says, “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin." Practice the art of humble inquiry. Stop and ask others if the way you are remembering events is the way they remember it. It probably won’t be exact, but it might be one step closer.
  4. Separate yourself - Psychologists call this dissociation. Try this. Take the point of view opposite of yours. Create arguments for it. Research it. Study it. Separate the emotion from the information. Now come back to the issue. Do you still feel as strongly as you did before?
  5. Practice humble listening - When you feel that you are at the end of your rope with someone, murder is not an option, and you can’t avoid the relationship, humbly set your ego and pridefulness aside and try to gain the other person's perspective.

How about you? Do you have any successful methods to share that you use to undo your Stinking Thinking?