Why you aren’t as right as you think you are

By Heather Campbell

A couple of months ago, a leader asked me if the personal stories I share in these weekly emails are true (thank you Malcolm, it was a great question).

I confirmed, they are. But, to be truthful, maybe they aren’t. You see, whether or not the stories I share are true is more complex than that simple answer suggests and, within this complexity, lies an important consideration for leaders. Let me be clear: the stories I share are all true in that I am not making them up. But the truth that they convey may not be accurate.

Let me tell you a (true) story to illustrate this. A few years back I spent a few days in New York and, of course, it included a little bit of shopping …I bought a casual top. Unpacking at home, I couldn’t find it. I checked in with my husband to ask if he’d seen it. I described it to him in detail. It was air force blue, buttoned up the back, had a collar, was short-sleeved. I could picture it clearly, after all, I’d taken time to choose it. When I eventually came across it, I realised just how much my memory had played tricks on me. It was blue, but it was long-sleeved, with the sleeves in a different fabric from the rest of the top. It had a pocket which I had completely forgotten. Even the detail of buttoning up the back was wrong – it didn’t. My mind had created this specific detail all on its own.

At a rational level, we know that our memories are unreliable. They’re unreliable because, even in the moment of experiencing the event, we are observing only a proportion of everything that is taking place. There are lots of holes. We fill these holes with details to make a complete picture that makes sense to us.

And we (mis)interpret many of the pieces that we do observe, bending these to fit our existing view of the world.

We take this misinterpreted, somewhat created story of ‘reality’ and put it into our memory bank. As time passes, we change the memory each time we remember it. That’s because, when we recall a memory, we are no longer recalling the original event. We are recalling the memory of the original event. The more often we remember the event, the more we are recalling increasingly flawed memories.

But that isn’t the problem. That’s just how our brains work to help us make sense of the world. The problem is, we don’t really believe it happens to us. We believe that we are different, that we remember accurately because the memory is so CLEAR. Yes, it is. It is clear but, chances are, it is INACCURATELY clear.

Research into the world of memory brings up new, and often conflicting, data. There is still a long way to go until this fascinating aspect of human existence is fully understood.

However, for leaders, recognising just how suspect our memories can be means we can hold our memories of THAT conversation, THAT agreement, THAT plan a little more lightly. We can be a little less certain of our own ‘rightness.’ This can help us to be more open to others, to be less convinced about our own perspective, and to be more willing to change our mind when we hear others’ views. And this, in turn, will help us to listen better, to judge less and to be more patient as we deal with the complexity around us.

Surely these outcomes can only bring benefit for us as leaders, for the people we lead and for our organisations? Give it a try and let me know how you get on.

And, just to be clear, I promise everything I share in my emails is true, as far as my memory permits. Thank you, once again, to Malcolm for posing a thought-provoking question.

And always, observe yourself and others with understanding and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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