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The Sneaky Seven of Discouragement and Defeat: Confusion

Management Corner – Part 5

Annette Reissfelder, a Professional Accredited Coach active in Prague and Hamburg, shares her musings on management, innovation and beliefs in this series first published in BUSINESSWOMAN this summer.

This article first appeared in “BusinessWoman” in November 2013.

Myth No. 2 is “I don't know what to do”

Confusion is very common when you start out on any project or innovation. The more you learn, the more complicated it gets; there are so many components and moving parts, and it's hard to know what to do first. Many people get stuck in confusion when they start climbing the career ladder, and feel that they'll never get beyond it. The first impulse is to try harder, the final impulse might be to just give up. Confusion seems to be innocent, but it's not, because it arises out of thinking you should know more than you do. This can make you overly rely on statistics and forecasts (both firmly rooted in the past, not the future – an easily overlooked fact…), as if they were the magic wand to circumnavigate the obvious fact that we will never have all the information (see box). We can never find out if an alternative course of action (the decision we didn’t take, or no decision at all) would indeed have produced better effects. In a world filled with circular causality, our intuitive thinking that likes simple cause-effect relationships can easily fool us, if left unchecked.

To combat confusion, be humble. When you are confused, you are out of focus. Refuse the impulse to take in more information – what you need is taking stuff OUT! Changing perspective can often be a helpful first step: look at your situation from your most important stakeholders’ position: your clients, your boss, a relevant co-worker – and also a positive, encouraging family member. Can their (assumed) priorities guide your thinking into what is really important now? What looks like a million things to do rarely is – once you’re back on top of things. So once you’ve calmed yourself down, start with one item on your new list. Admit what you don't know and let it be OK that you don't know. Of course you need to develop and learn from others and discover what works. Absolutely do try and catch yourself whenever you are “squirrelling around” – don’t give up so easily on getting back in the driver’s seat.

Sometimes, the best you can do is work with an attitude of “failing better” this time round. This is not at all the same as “shrugging off”! Read some good books about some major fallacies of our thinking (like David Rock’s “Brain at Work”, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”), so you have some fallback strategies, and can put some self-created problems into perspective. Only then, you may want to make your lists and plans, get advice from others who have figured out how to make something work and can give you specific directions. A good guide might be a mentor or a boss who wants you to succeed; there are many of those out there, and most of them aren’t getting the press coverage they deserve! In my experience it is often precisely these people who can enable you to access a pretty amazing and boosting resource: a coach. It’s typically bosses who believe in you who can help you find a coaching budget – and they often do, after they have reached the limits of what they can do for you by themselves.

In a real crisis, you have to rely on what you already know how to do – and may benefit most from working with a good coach to get you out of confusion so you can access your resources again. When you are no longer in confusion, it doesn't mean you know everything, it means you know what you don't know and have clear pointers as to what you need to learn next in order to succeed eventually. Period.

Let me end by hoping you have found these comments inspiring. In the next article, I’ll look at Impatience

Information overload – the natural enemy of focus

In this day and age, we are exposed to so much information that it is getting tricky to distinguish the noise from the signal. Steve Jobs eloquently stated what every seasoned decision maker knows: “People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.“

The more important your decisions, the more mindful you need to be about the noise-to-signal-ratio of your trusted sources of information – and have strategies in place to notice and reverse imbalances. Among other things, this means limiting exposure to newspapers (even quality papers often nudge us to believe the overly trivial cause-and-effect relationships that they present) and sloppily researched online chitchat. Today, we are much challenged to apply the ancient wisdom that keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise (wo)man. Human brains are expert machines for creating stories and meaning from fragmented data; therefore, the more important the decisions you take based on your brain’s limited capacity to handle data, the more you’d better watch the quality of whatever you take in. Remember that less is more.

Ironically, people often want “more data to solve problems”. At the same time, they would probably agree that we’ve never had more data than we do now, yet we have less predicta­bility than ever. An abundance of remotely relevant data can blind us to noticing important underlying dynamics – and even the pink elephant in the room. Speaking of which, why don’t you stop reading for a second and click on this video: If you’ve never come across this famous clip in a class or management training, you may be surprised to learn that roomfuls of highly effective, well-educated managers were consistently missing a life-size gorilla – just because they were concentrating on the number of passes of one team of players.

It is also worth remembering that our brain regularly downloads stuff from our crowded short-term memory into longer-term storage. This process is totally automated and usually very reliable. It happens when we sleep, but here is the snag: only in the deeper phases of our sleep. Which is why we need to make sure we get a good night’s sleep so that this process can be carried out faultlessly. In troubled times, we may have to give our brains some downtime before we go to bed in the first place (NOT watching the news, or some adrenalin-raising late night films!). A quieting pre-bedtime ritual makes a lot of sense. And when your thoughts go round and round in circles as you try to fall asleep, usually about topics that are pretty irrelevant right now, or trivial, or have already been solved, just gently remind yourself to focus on your breathing for a minute instead. Once you’ve combined the habits of data-filtering during the day and enhancing sleep at night, you may be surprised at how much easier it is to stay focused and make smart decisions. Sweet dreams!

Management Corner – Part 1 Why Good Girls could be losing out in the workplace now
Management Corner – Part 2 The New Management Ideal
Management Corner – Part 3 Beliefs Trump Facts: An Introduction
Management Corner – Part 4 Personal Myths: Beliefs That Might Be Holding You Back

About the author:
 Annette ( studied economics and holds a master degree in psychology. She started her coaching training in 1998 while she ran a management consultancy for manufacturing companies. Today her clients are business owners and senior managers who want to actively shape an important personal or professional change project. In her work, she combines the roles of consultant, strategic thinking partner and psychologist. She is multilingual and works in German, Czech and English.  

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