How often have you overreacted to a situation, taken something personally that really wasn’t personal or read tone in an email and responded with tone? These were some opening poll questions that Elizabeth Thornton, Adjunct Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at Babson College, asked a group of Fortune 500 women executives.
The cohort of women tuning in to this interactive webinar had just attended the Smith College Leadership Consortium, a two-week leadership development program for mid-level female executives. They had come together to learn about a fundamental leadership skill: the ability to be objective so as to solve problems more effectively by arriving at conclusions that are accurate and bias-free.
As the virtual polling progressed, the results revealed an almost 50-50 split between those who said they overreacted at least once a week and those that crossed the line once a month. “That is just about right…we all do this all the time,” explained Thornton, who is credited with engineering a new curriculum at Babson called the “Principles of Objectivity.” The course teaches global leaders how to increase their objectivity by questioning the underlying assumptions they have about people, behaviors and situations.
According to Thornton, we as human beings are programmed to be subjective—to experience people, situations and events through our own sensory lenses. In turn, we tend to project the way we interpret the world onto our daily interactions and happenings. We differentiate, categorize and prejudge, while developing ideas and ways of thinking that prop up our worldview. Yet as Thornton points out, these habitualized frames of reference often compromise our capacity to make productive decisions based on “what is,” rather than “what we think is.” Our subjective analyses often lead to “cognitive errors” that impel us to:
- Over-generalizing: we conclude that things are worse than they really are
- Magnifying: we blow negative events out of proportion
- “Attending selectively”: we focus only on one side of the equation when assessing the situation at hand
It turns out that, in a professional context, extreme subjectivity can cost us big time; it can disrupt our relationship with a manager or coworker, make us miss a critical deadline or forego promotion opportunities and even jeopardize our all-valuable reputation.
Thornton projects a magazine image from the sixties: a woman standing in a kitchen with a broom in her hand while wearing a prim (another adjective?) blue dress, a crisp apron, a necklace of pearls, and high heels. “Many of our mental models are reflections of what we’ve grown up seeing in the media,” she says. Thornton then asks the women to engage in a chat exercise to come up with some common “mental models” of women in the workplace and discuss what effect these might have on women and the corporations for which they work. “We see over and over that more often than not, men are put in ‘chief of staff’ positions,” shared one participant.
Of course, there are “mental models” about men as well. What about the stereotypical image of a handyman? Men who don’t fit that model might be viewed as somehow less manly and even inept! Ultimately, says Thornton, “objectivity is recognizing and accepting “what is” without projecting our mental models, background, culture, experiences, and responding thoughtfully, deliberately and effectively.”
But how can we train our minds to recognize “what is” without being subjective? How can we make judgments that are uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices and based primarily on observable phenomena? Thornton’s solution emphasizes self-awareness and mindfulness. She outlines a four-step method for intervening in our own thought process:
- Recognize the facts about a situation
- Pinpoint the “mental models” that are influencing your reaction
- Identify new modes of thinking and behaving based on knowledge, experience and feedback
- Respond more objectively
So the next time you start reacting to a situation, hold the thought! When you have the urge to write that long rant of an email or storm into your co-worker’s office, make a conscious decision to change course. Try doing something completely different, such as taking a ten-minute walk, to give your mind a chance to gain perspective. As one program participant commented, “I can aspire to be objective all the time or at least catch myself 100% of the time when I’m not.”