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Sometimes all you need is a fresh perspective.

Want a different result? Develop mental muscles.

We often tell our clients about the Pygmalion study, in which grade school teachers were given false information about their students’ learning potential. Teacher A was told that his class was exceptionally bright and expected to perform well. Teacher B was told that her students were just average and to not expect superior performance. In reality, the students of both teachers had been selected at random. But because Teacher A had high expectations, the students performed well—almost twice as well as the other group, in fact. Conversely, because Teacher B had average expectations, student performance was average. In short, expectation affected outcome.

The moral of this story is that it’s easy to develop a fixed mental model about people and stop seeing them with fresh eyes, despite evidence to the contrary. In a business setting, it might play out in your mind like this: “Jack never supports any ideas that aren’t his. He seemed to be open to and even excited about the marketing consultant’s recommendations, but I know Jack. He’ll undermine this somehow and take the whole team down with him.”

This kind of thinking is short-sighted in and of itself, but when performance is an issue, it fuels momentum of the worst kind. You can’t imagine Jack changing because you “know Jack.” Jack doesn’t get the chance to change because you have a fixed notion of him and won’t give him the opportunity. And because Jack doesn’t work in a vacuum, the productivity of all involved will be impaired.

The antidote to this scenario is to be a beginner and look at someone with fresh eyes. Start by noticing your own black-and-white or either/or thinking, then make every effort to cultivate open-minded curiosity. Be an active listener, ask more open-ended questions, and paraphrase to double-check your interpretation and understanding. While not always easy, these techniques will develop mental muscles and relax fixed beliefs about individuals and situations. Ideally, as that happens, options for leading change will open up. You may well be pleasantly surprised!

 

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