C-Suite Advisory

Thinking Differently As Competitive Advantage


Developing the next generation of leaders was listed as the top issue for CEOs in DDI’s CEO Challenges: Global Leadership Forecast for 2018 report. Leaders are increasingly being asked to grapple with complex problems for which there is no one right answer.  They are needing to balance internal and external pressures and stakeholder needs, in an environment that is constantly changing. Consequently, effective leadership development requires a focus on encouraging leaders to think differently, to challenge prevailing norms and to be comfortable not having all the answers.

However, many leadership development programs still focus on teaching new skills, abilities and behaviours, rather than looking at how leaders think, process information, make decisions and influence those around them.  Understanding how a leader thinks, influences and uses power is critical.

A 2010 study by the University of Southern California and London Business School (Power and over confident decision making) found there’s a correlation between over-confidence and how much power a person has.   The more power a person feels the more confident they are of the accuracy of their thoughts and beliefs.  This means people in powerful positions are more confident that their opinions are right. For leaders who are being charged with solving complex problems and making difficult decisions, being overly confident may result in decision failures as they fail to heed advice or look for alternative opinions. As well, when power is concentrated in the hands of a few people, who all think the same way, an organisation more readily opens itself up to failures, group-think and poor decision processes.

Humans are tribal creatures, who like to fit in and be part of the pack.  This can create a pressure to conform that stifles questions and inhibits challenging the status quo. This is more likely to happen in homogeneous groups, which is why involving a diverse range of people is an essential element of effective decision making.

Research by Associate Professor of Management and Organisations at the Kellogg School of Management, Katherine Phillips, and colleagues found that diverse teams often make better decisions as they ensure different views are considered.  The research showed that the better decisions were not the result of new ideas, but because the diversity caused more careful information processing than in the homogeneous groups.

Decision making is an imperfect science, which requires diversity of thought to improve its effectiveness, and so developing leaders to be more consciously aware of how they think, process and decide is critical for organisational success. As well, leaders need to be encouraged to see influence not as self-serving, but as a tool which can help to equalise and share power, and therefore ensure diverse voices are heard.

When a leader is comfortable influencing in this way they are able to confidently express ideas, embrace big thinking and step into difficult discussions, without holding onto the notion that they have to win the argument.  They are also more willing to surround themselves with people who are comfortable speaking up, to question and to challenge assumptions.

In doing this, they create an environment which encourages debate, views dissent and doubt as a useful precursor to effective decision-making, and helps to ensure leaders don’t become complacent, arrogant and out of touch.  The reminder for leaders – when they see themselves as the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find another room.

Written by Michelle Gibbings.

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Michelle Gibbings
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the author of three books, including her latest 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'.

Michelle Gibbings is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.