by Peter Bregman
Two weeks ago, with the sun shining and little buds emerging from tree branches, I got frostbite while skiing. Not just a little frostbite; several of my toes were snow white. Thankfully I didn’t lose the toes but it took ten minutes in a hot shower for them to slowly and painfully return to their normal color.
Here’s what’s crazy: I ski practically every weekend in the winter without getting frostbite, usually in temperatures well below freezing. So what happened?
Well, it turns out, it’s precisely because it was Spring that I got frostbite.
You see, in the winter, when it’s cold, I wear a down jacket and several layers of thermal underwear. Most importantly, I use foot warmers — thin chemical packets that slide into my ski boots and emit heat for six hours. I need them because my boots are tight, which constricts my blood flow and makes me susceptible to frostbite when it’s cold.
This time, since it was the very last ski weekend of Spring, I wore a light jacket and didn’t use my foot warmers.
Only the weather was below freezing. Twenty degrees to be exact.
Did I look at the temperature before I went out? Of course I did. I knew it was cold. My feet even started to hurt an hour into skiing, but I just kept on going. I simply ignored the data. Why? Because it was Spring! I expected warmer weather. My past experience told me this time of year was sunny and hot. Every other year at this time I skied in a T-shirt. And the previous weekend it was 60 degrees and I did ski in a T-shirt.
All of which overwhelmed the reality that, actually, it was cold enough to turn my toes white.
This was a good reminder of how easy it is to mistake our expectation for reality, the past for the present, and our desires for fact. And how painful it can be when we do.
There’s a psychological term for this: confirmation bias. We look for the data, behaviors, and evidence that show us that things are the way we believe they should be. In other words, we look to confirm that we’re right.
In the early 90s, while working for a medium-sized consulting firm, I went to Columbia University’s executive MBA program. Two years after graduating, I was still working for the firm, and I was ready for some new challenges. I had a number of new skills — skills the firm had, in part, paid for me to acquire — and I wanted to use them.
But the firm didn’t see the new me. They saw the old me, the one they had hired and trained four years earlier. And so they continued to give me the same work and use me in the same ways as they had before I earned my MBA.
Then a headhunter called and, since she didn’t know me before, she saw me as I was, not as she thought I should be, and within a few months I left the firm and joined one that wanted to leverage my new skills.
This phenomenon is the cause of many personal, professional, and organizational failures. The world changes and yet we expect it to be the way we think it should be and so we don’t take action.
I confront this challenge in my coaching all the time — the most challenging aspect of any coaching assignment isn’t helping someone change. That’s comparatively easy. The hard part is getting the people around the person to change their perception of him. Because once we form an opinion, we resist changing it.
Encyclopedia Britannica, having built its 200-year franchise selling massive books, was blindsided by digital media and probably will never recover. Kodak had been so successful selling film since 1888 that it couldn’t imagine how quickly and violently it could be made irrelevant by new digital competitors.
Why do we fall into the trap of being fooled by expectations?
Usually our expectations are right. In the spring, it’s warmer. People don’t usually change drastically. And a 200-year franchise is, well, 200 years old. That’s pretty solid.
That makes us feel good. Safe. Right.
But sometimes we’re wrong. Perhaps not always. Perhaps at one time we were right and then things changed. But now, maybe, we’re wrong and we don’t like to admit that. We don’t even see it. Because we’re too busy looking for evidence to confirm our previous ideas.
Unfortunately while confirmation bias makes us feel better, it makes us behave worse. So employees leave. Businesses falter. And I get frostbite.
How do we avoid falling into the trap of being fooled by expectations?
Instead of looking for how things are the same, we can look for how they are different. Instead of seeking evidence to confirm our perspectives, we can seek to shake them up. Instead of wanting to be right, we can want to be wrong.
Of course, this takes a tremendous amount of confidence. Let’s face it, we’d all prefer to be right than wrong.
But here’s the irony: the more you look to be wrong, the more likely you’ll end up right.
So next time you look at an employee, ask yourself what’s changed? Instead of focusing on what she’s doing wrong, try looking for something new she does right that you never noticed before.
And as you look at your industry, ask yourself how it’s changed and why that might mean your businesses strategy is off. Ask others to argue against you. Then listen instead of arguing.
Here’s another great question to ask: What do I not want to hear?
And next time you go outside, no matter the time of year, stick your hand out the window first and feel the temperature.