062: Flexible Thinking: 5 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Better Decisions

by Joe Sherwood on October 31, 2013

Flexible ThinkingIn the past, leaders who made fast decisions inspired confidence and often produced excellent results. In today’s more complex, rapidly changing environment, great leaders use and encourage a different skill that Jesse calls “flexible thinking.”

Flexible thinking is a leadership secret uncovered by David Burnham and other researchers at the firm Burnham Rosen, through studies involving hundreds of thousands of people beginning in the late 1990s. Flexible thinking recognizes that in the 21st century:

  • Situations tend to be complex rather than black-and-white
  • Information is widely available (the leader no longer has a monopoly on information)
  • Both situations and information frequently change.

New research from University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business confirms the importance of flexible thinking, one of the five principles behind interactive leadership. Most people will be surprised to learn that the starting point is emotional ambivalence.

In this episode, Jesse discusses how flexible thinking can improve your leadership ability and outlines five ways to inspire flexible thinking in your team:

  • Recognize your own ambivalent feelings. For those of us trained to emphasize logic and downplay emotion, it can be helpful to see a list of feelings. Sorry guys: in this context, neither “hungry” nor “horny” qualify as feelings.
  • Give voice to your ambivalence. Specifically name two emotions you feel that seem to be conflicting. “I’m worried that we’ll lose money on this deal, but I’m excited about being the first in this market.”
  • Encourage team members to share their feelings (not just their rational thoughts). You don’t have to get touchy-feely about this (“Gee, Bob, tell me how you’re really feeling”). Usually, leading by example is all that’s necessary (recognizing and giving voice to your ambivalence).
  • Take care not to squash their feelings. The worst thing you can do is slip into “Lord of Logic” mode, and discount the emotions expressed by your team. Bite your tongue if you feel tempted to say “No, that won’t happen,” “That’s silly,” or “Yeah, but….”
  • Demonstrate a healthy attitude toward mistakes. Acknowledge up front that the group may not always get the answer right. Occasional mistakes are a part of doing business, and many mistakes end up not negatively affecting the outcome.

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