If You Could Read My Mind
We often think that whatever is going on in our own heads is obvious to other people. What psychologists call the Illusion of Transparency is the erroneous idea we hold that others can tell what we are thinking. Mind readers are in short supply, but too many leaders seem to think they are everywhere.
Try this classic demonstration: Think of a familiar or famous tune (like Happy Birthday or the National Anthem) and use your finger to tap it out for a colleague. Next, ask this person to guess the song. You might be amazed at how few people can correctly guess the song you are tapping. What is utterly obvious to you is anything but clear to them.
Leaders, in particular, are not as obvious as they think they are. The tendency to overestimate the degree to which others know their mental state is a common leadership affliction. When leaders presume others know what they’re thinking, they skip explaining their intentions, plans, and actions.
Believing that team members know when they are confident, frustrated, concerned, or anxious, leaders are often surprised when others react differently than they expect.
This is also true of what leaders are thinking. For instance, leaders often presume others understand how they arrived at a decision, or that they will soon give a team member more responsibility. The result is team members who resist decisions and leave for more responsibility elsewhere.
Because leaders naturally spend the most time with their own thoughts and perspectives, they believe everyone else has been thinking right along with them. This makes getting ahead of others (presuming they agree when they don’t) quite common. No wonder gaining buy-in to strategies and decisions is so difficult.
The best leaders fight this tendency by continually comparing notes with others about how they think about an issue, decision, or topic. Bringing people along with their thinking by discussing how it is evolving is another method that combats this bias.
As much as we would like to believe the contrary, people never get better at reading our minds without our help. Good leaders don’t presume others know what they are thinking or experiencing. They tell them. How novel is that?