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Why it’s hard to admit you’re off track

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Leadership consultant Antony Bell tells this story to show the stubbornness of our assumptions: what psychologists and scientists call our “paradigms.”

In a car headed from Rio de Janeiro to a coastal town in Brazil, Bell and his companions had traveled far when they found someone who could show them where they were on a map. They’d figured they were close to their target … but were they wrong.

After two hours of driving, they’d turned onto the right road but in the wrong direction: heading north instead of south. Now, they were farther from their destination than when they’d started.

How did that happen to four bright people? Here’s how difficult it was for them to believe the evidence right in front of their eyes:
  1. To suit their own paradigm, they’d twisted the meaning of clues. Driving past a mansion, one of them said: “Hey, haven’t we seen something like that before?” Yes, in fact, they’d seen it driving into Rio two days ago. But the evidence collided with their (wrong) sense of direction. They decided they were looking at a popular style of architecture.

  2. At another point, they took in a view of Rio and decided that it must be a city farther south. Then, they saw an expanse of ocean to the right … not to the left, where it should have been. Instead of deducing that they might be driving in the wrong direction, they concluded it was a large bay.

    Within the correct paradigm, they might have recognized Rio’s landmarks; in fact, they almost certainly would have. But their mind-set said they were going south, so they twisted the facts to suit their belief that they were headed south.

    When the frame of reference shifted, their earlier assumptions looked silly, even though they’d seemed rational at the time.

    In fact, Bell admits, their assumptions weren’t reasonable but preferable. The travelers didn’t want to know they were going the wrong way.
Lesson: “You must think well,” says Bell. “And to think well, you must challenge your own thinking patterns. The good patterns will withstand the scrutiny.”

—Adapted from Great Leadership, Antony Bell, Davies-Black Publishing.

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