Why leaders must replace habitual thinking with an intentional mindset

My colleague wants none of the work and all the credit.

My boss is never satisfied no matter how hard I work.

No one on this team is as committed as I am.

Have you ever said something like this to yourself? Most people make sweeping assumptions like these at some point in their careers. These are examples of habitual thinking and the stories we tell ourselves about the people around us.

And most of the time, these stories are wrong. Even when they are right, stories like this usually lack context and depth – and so, they lead us astray. Meaning that if we act on them as leaders, we are in danger of making a serious mistake.

The problem with habitual thinking

When something frustrating, worrisome or annoying happens, it’s natural to stew and replay situations over and over again in our minds. We want to understand, learn and avoid a similar scenario in the future. As we do this, we fill in the blanks, trying to understand the how and why.

Here’s an example.

Suppose your staff is up against a tight deadline for a major year-end report. As they hash out next steps in a meeting, one of your staffers erupts at the group and storms out of the room. Stunned, one of your direct reports comes to you and shares her suspicion that this employee has a substance abuse issue. It’s affecting the whole team, she says, and the report will suffer. You are left feeling you have to take action.

Except when you do, something unexpected happens. As soon as you call this employee in to discuss the issue, he collapses into tears and shares that his mother, who lives two states away, has had a debilitating stroke. He has no siblings and should have already gone to help but feels he can’t because of this deadline. He doesn’t know how he will manage the personal or professional tasks on his plate, but he is trying. No wonder he couldn’t keep his cool. And good thing you haven’t already reached out to HR to discuss the possible substance abuse. This situation warrants a very different response.

Habitual thinking in an interpersonal context boils down to the assumptions we make about others. Even when they turn out to be right, these stories are unfair to those around us because they totally lack context.

And when our assumptions are wrong, they can lead to poor or even reckless decision making. When we act based on emotion and not facts — or based on assumptions that are contrary to the facts — we can make everything worse. Leaders simply can’t behave this way. They need to behave with intention.

Cultivating intentional thinking

The antithesis to habitual thinking is intentional thinking. An intentional mindset will enable you to act in ways that account for the whole picture, and you will ultimately gain the respect of people who see you as someone who treats people fairly and makes decisions grounded in facts. Decisions that are far more likely to solve problems and move the team forward.

Cultivating intentional thinking starts with interrupting habitual thinking. Next time you find yourself in a tricky situation, pause and examine your thought process. What assumptions have you made about what’s going on? When you pause before you act or react, you can notice and ultimately interrupt the story you may be telling yourself.

Then, turn to a more intentional framework for gathering information and facts that will obviate the need for you to fill in the blanks. When you know, you won’t have to assume.

Gather the real story

Try adapting the reporter’s framework for collecting information before drawing any conclusions. For your purposes, you want to know who, what, why, where and how. This is about understanding the issue objectively and learning what you’ll need to know before you can move forward.

Try asking the following questions, accepting only answers that are supported by evidence (and not more stories):

  • What happened?
  • What is the real problem?
  • Who is involved?
  • Why did this happen?
  • Where do we need to go from here?
  • How will we get there?

When you approach each of these with an open mind, and the awareness to pause any habitual reflex as it creeps into your thinking, you will get far closer to the objective truth, and the most appropriate response.

Intentional thinking in leadership

The best leaders know what they don’t know and spend more time asking questions than spouting answers. They also understand that people are complex, and it’s rare that we can fully understand someone else’s motivations without doing the work to learn.

When you hone the skill of intentional thinking, you become the kind of leader people trust. Each time you ask, listen and truly hear the concerns of others, you gain the social capital needed to ask a lot of those who work for you. They will show up because you have shown up for them.

What kinds of habitual thinking have you seen in the workplace? How do you cultivate intentional thinking? Please consider sharing in the comments!

Last updated May 11, 2021

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