How much heat before you get out of the kitchen?

A firepit with a roaring fire

When the platform you are standing on is on fire, do you need to measure the height of the flames, the fire intensity, and the rate of spread before deciding to move?

If you are a firefighter, then the answer might be ‘perhaps’ or ‘it depends’. Professional judgement and experience would serve to guide a firefighter’s decision.

A burning platform is a common, Western business metaphor for a compelling reason to change.

We are less likely to change if we don’t have a compelling reason.

Yet, human change is uncomfortable. 

Change at an unconscious and neurological level is perceived to be unsafe for us and is a common reason why we resist it.

Change challenges our identity, our patterns of habit and behaviour and our position (and status) in our current network of relationships.

If you doubt this, think of the change involved in quitting smoking. First, there is the shift in identity from ‘I am someone who smokes’ to the identity of ‘I am a non-smoker. Second, there is a shift in habits (e.g. buying smoking materials, the many contexts and occasions when I would normally choose to smoke). Lastly, there is a shift in the network of relationships. People who used to swing by my desk, including a former boss, to suggest stepping outside for a cigarette learn that I am not someone who smokes anymore.

The implication is that I’m not like them anymore, and they may perceive that I am rejecting them (albeit for good personal reasons). And rejection is painful. 

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. The findings suggest that social pain alerts us when our social ties have been damaged by serving a similar brain role to physical pain. 

tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to thoseof physical pain.

So when we choose to delay and not change, we are choosing to remain comfortable in our comfort zone. 

What role, then, should data play in our decision-making, particularly regarding how to shift our patterns of behaviour and language in our practice of leadership practice?

Do we cling tightly to data and refuse to change until data and logic unequivocally confirm the action to take?

Or do we take note of the initial reading (i.e. it’s getting too hot, the flames are high and getting close) and use our instinct and intuition to jump off the platform?

You could answer, ‘it depends’. Many, however, choose to keep the status quo until conditions and the data that confirm them tell them it is time for change. 

In the domain of human capital, our digital, left-brained dominated world has come to idolise the sanctity of data. Our education, tools, approaches, and power dynamics reinforce this.

Neuroscientist Dr Iain McGilchrist predicted this back in 2009 when he noted:

The concepts of skill and judgment, once considered the summit of human achievement, but which come only slowly and silently with the business of living, would be discarded in favour of quantifiable and repeatable processes.

He went further in the final chapter of his book ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World” to affirm this by saying,

“we have privileged the left side and its way of knowing so much that we are badly out of balance and, in fact, becoming mad.”

Yet, what happens if data is used instead to highlight an important tension within a business to be resolved through conversation? Instead of being an absolute, data opens up and guides a conversation.

What happens if we choose to use data and ‘play not to lose (i.e. the data confirms our logic and decision, and we don’t make a mistake)?

When data is bound up in our identity and the value we bring to the table as a member of the senior team, then it is perhaps not surprising that we are reluctant to break our ingrained professional habits and work with intuition and instinct.

Why introduce something that places a risk to our identity?

The Internet keeps reminding us that we need to change how we think and the quality of conversations to solve the problems we face.

An over-dependence on data reinforces our current thinking and patterns of behaviour because our identity, our status, and our power base are invested in it.

This post is not suggesting we ignore data, that would be foolhardy. In other domains, data precision and using absolutes are essential to avoid life-and-death consequences.

The main thrust of this post is to suggest that over-reliance on data in human change creates an unnecessary drag on the pace of adaptation and progress.

Playing not to lose is always a ‘win-lose’ game.

So, I wonder, what behavioural tensions arise from the data within your business today?

What different action will you take today without waiting for the data to tell you exactly what to do?



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