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The One Word Every Leader Should Avoid

by Marcia Reynolds

The more you gain the more you have to lose. This fact often pressures leaders into spending more time defending their positions than they do in listening to new ideas.

The one word every leader should avoid is, “But…”

The word “but” signals that your brain has quickly conjured up reasons for not taking a risk, for not choosing to do something different, or for not considering that past successes should not provide the blueprint for going forward in the future.

Your Powerful and Overprotective Brain

The primary purpose of the brain is to keep you safe and alive. Whether asleep or awake, your brain is always on the lookout for harm. Your choices are filtered through this lens of protection.

As a result, you naturally protect your own ideas and strategies. When novel ideas are presented, your brain masterfully lists all the bad things that could happen and highlights the worst case scenario for these notions. You might even judge the person presenting the ideas as rebellious or incompetent instead of brave.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor of neuroscience, said the closing of the mind isn’t due to age but to tenure. The longer you stay in a position, industry, or company, the less likely you are to appreciate inventive ideas. You think structured brainstorming is enough of a creative process to fuel innovation. You bristle at the ideas of the young who have no experiences to build on.

Your excessive use of the word “but” indicates you aren’t getting old but that you could be getting stale.

Overriding Your Brain

You can keep your brain open and alive short of changing jobs and industries. These activities take practice and discipline AND they are worth the effort.

  1. Question your work values. Most leaders pride themselves on thinking fast and being decisive. To change this, you have to value the importance in slowing down, reflecting on different ideas, and allowing people to question your decisions. Yes, there is a balance; sometimes thinking quickly is vital. Other times it is not. Define for yourself when each approach is needed before faced with a decision so you have guidelines to fall back on.
  2. Question your brain. Whether you are resisting ideas in the moment or contemplating the denial of ideas after the fact, ask yourself some or all of these questions,
    • Did the idea have some merit I didn’t acknowledge?
    • If there wasn’t so much at stake, would the idea be worth considering?
    • What would the consequences be, really, if we went with the idea?
    • If I can’t change my mind but the idea had some merit or triggered me to consider something else, can I incorporate this new understanding into my next move?
  3. Say And. Whenever you feel the urge to say, “but,” trying saying “and” instead. Saying “and” keeps people open to sharing ideas with you instead of shutting them down with the show-stopping word, “but.”
  4. Ask the inexperienced but passionate young to share their ideas. New ideas come openly to enthusiastic people who haven’t lived through failures. Their thoughts might sound naïve but could hold a kernel of brilliance you could build on. Too many people look down on the mouthy millennials without hearing what is clever about their crazy thoughts.
  5. Encourage people to disagree with you. No matter how open you think you are, your title will keep people from disagreeing with you. You have to let people know over and over again that this is okay by not only telling them, but showing them by appreciating their contrasting views. Say thank you. Merge their ideas with yours or change your mind completely if it is the right thing to do. Don’t just tell people you want to hear them, show them, too. And remember, don’t kill the messenger!
  6. Acknowledge your fears. Before you can hear and see new possibilities, acknowledge the fears that might exist. Be honest. Ask yourself what you are afraid of losing by changing your mind. Ask yourself if people will respect you less if you don’t have the answer. Ask yourself if giving time to a decision will make you lose credible. It’s likely you will say no to these questions. Clear your fears in order to hear new ideas.

Self-awareness is the first step to outsmarting your brain. Question the first choices your brain made to see if there are other things you can choose instead. Think “and” instead of “but.”

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