Three ways leaders can stop their paradigms tripping them up

By Heather Campbell

In the ever-evolving landscape of leadership, we all find ourselves navigating unprecedented challenges. As markets shift, and the pace of change accelerates, it becomes crucial for leaders to adapt and reshape their paradigms. Embracing a new mindset is not just about survival but about flourishing in an environment that demands constant innovation.

Breaking free from conventional leadership practices requires leaders to embrace more collaborative, adaptive, and future-oriented approaches to navigate the complexities of the modern business landscape effectively.

Wow! Big words, big sentiments, big paradigms. But what does it really mean for you as an individual leader trying to be an effective in your role?

I’ve been exploring paradigms – what they are, how they can get in the way for leaders and how to recognise them – over the last couple of weeks. Today I want to look at how we can change – or at least manage – our paradigms. After all, it’s one thing to know we have them, it’s even better to recognise when our paradigms are getting in the way – but the real value comes from changing and managing our paradigms when we need to.

Here are three steps that can help you to do just that.

1. Think your way to the new paradigm

One of my favourite books is: The Expectation Effect by David Robson. It explores how much our expectations (usually based on our paradigms) effect how we age, how fit we are, how stressed we feel. So, if your paradigm is that you’re old at 50, you’re going to behave as if you’re old. If you think 50 is the new 30 with the benefit of 20 years extra experience and that you’re ready to achieve your best results ever, guess what – you’ll power forward.

To change our expectations, Robson emphasises the importance of thinking as if the desired new paradigm is already your reality. So, for example, if you want to get into exercise, rather than thinking ‘I want to be someone who works out five times a week’ change your thinking to ‘I work out five times a week.’

‘I want to be a more patient person’ becomes ‘I am patient.’

Changing your thinking is a key first step in changing your habits, your expectations and your paradigms.

‘I want to be a good listener’ becomes ‘I am someone who listens carefully to others’

‘I want to be less impulsive’ becomes ‘I take my time to make crucial decisions’

‘I don’t want to be a micro-manager’ becomes ‘I trust my team and give them the space to take action.’

So, there you have an easy way to challenge your paradigms – think your way to a new one.

2. Get out of your echo chamber

Most of us live in a great big echo chamber – our friendship circles, our social media feeds, our newsfeeds increasingly ensure we encounter only beliefs or opinions that coincide with our own. This means that our existing views are reinforced so much that we believe with ever increasing certainty that we are right and close our minds to alternative ideas.

If you’re already thinking ‘That’s not me. I’m really open-minded’ – let me challenge your paradigm. I’d even go so far as to suggest that the more you believe that you’re open-minded, the less likely that is to be the case. Now, before you dismiss this possibility, just let it sit as a possibility that you are more closed in your thinking than you want to believe. In fact, we are all more closed in our thinking than we want to behave. Our paradigms tend to make sure of that!

Living in an echo chamber becomes an ever greater challenge for you as you become more senior in your organisation. You see, the more formal authority you have, the harder it becomes for people you lead to disagree with you. Of course, you’ll have other stakeholders who do – I’m not suggesting you live in a marshmallow world of comfy agreement – but the higher you go, the more others will agree with you to your face and air their concerns behind your back. Your echo chamber grows.

But how can you break out of that big echo chamber? What can you do?

Here are three things you can do as leader that will dampen the echoes and leave space for fresh thinking.

Rather than asking your team to comment on your ideas, ask them for three specific flaws in your thinking. Explore these, dig into them, without disagreeing. You can, of course, also ask them for three specific positives about your idea. We’re not trying to destroy your confidence here – simply to dampen the echoes. Asking people to find a specific number of flaws is powerful for two reasons. Firstly, it gives them permission to disagree with you. Secondly, it makes it easier for their brain to identify the flaws because you’ve made a very specific request.

Spend time with the individuals who are in the frontline or in leadership levels two positions ‘below’ you, doing their jobs. The more senior you become, the more disconnected you become from the reality that others face. Your paradigms about the working environment shift. This means that you will make decisions that don’t make sense but no-one’s going to tell you – or if they do, your paradigm will get in the way so thoroughly that you won’t hear what they’re saying, unless you are open to questioning it.

Go back to basics and refresh your learning. I’ve been a Pilates fan for the last 30 years and worked with various Pilates instructors. Every so often, any good instructor will go back to basics, taking you through the fundamentals to help you correct the bad habits you’ve got into. In the same way, as a leader, you’ve developed lots of bad habits over the years – as well as good ones of course. But, as you reach more senior roles, don’t just keep your focus on the big strategic topics and the big leadership discussions with other big senior leaders – that’s you right back into the echo chamber again. Instead, refresh your learning of the core principles. I’m constantly amazed how often senior leaders – whose communication style and skill matters more now than ever before in their career – still rely on the coaching skills course attended 20 years ago. Things have changed, thinking has changed, understanding has changed – time for a refreshed paradigm?

3. Make ChatGPT your personal critic

This is a fun one after the heavier stuff in (2).

Make ChatGPT your very own critic by typing your thinking or idea into the chat box. Remember, your thinking or ideas will largely be based on your paradigms. Add as much detail as possible. Ask ChatGPT to find five flaws in your argument. You’ll get some good stuff in just a few seconds.

Then ask it to provide counter-arguments to the five flaws it’s just identified.

You can keep going with critiquing the critiques and finding counter-arguments for a couple more times if you like. You’ll find that you’re getting new perspectives that challenge your paradigm by now.

If you fancy it, you can even type in your strongest held views – definitely based on your paradigms – and go through the same exercise.

This is a light-hearted and yet powerful and quick way to get different perspectives that will challenge your thinking.

So, there you go. Some ideas that any leader can use to manage and change their paradigms when they need to. Give at least one of them a go. You’ll find it practice but the more often you challenge your paradigms, the less they’ll trip you up without you even realising.

Let me know how you get on!

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