Navigating A Not-Quite-Rational Planet

It is quite a world we live in. Protestations of rationality disguise intuition, wishful thinking and leaps of faith. People are messy, awkward and occasionally difficult. Things are not always as they seem. It begs the question: just how are we supposed to make it through all of this, get things done, and stay sane in the process?

The good news is, you’re ahead of the game. You already have a handle on the fact that we don’t always make the most rational of choices. You know there are levels of meaning (so very, very many of them). You even have an understanding of how they work, sort of (because in this as in so many things in life, it depends; it always depends).

That is all well and good, but it’s a lot to keep in mind. It is more than a little complex to keep trying to make sense of everything around us all of the time, not to mention exhausting. That was the point that I really appreciated about what Daniel Khaneman wrote in Thinking Fast & Slow (still a great read, by the way; if you haven’t read it yet, I strongly recommend doing so). Even though he has massive expertise and insight into all of the ways that unconscious biases get in the way, he acknowledges that he is as susceptible to them as the rest of us.

Of course, there is the outside chance that rather than appreciating the humanity of that statement, you find it altogether discouraging. If the foremost expert in the world gets tripped up by unconscious bias, then what hope is there for the rest of us? And while that’s an entirely fair point, there are strategies we can employ to pay attention and navigate successfully when it really matters. The key is knowing just when that is the case.

An important first step is to acknowledge that you have unconscious decision making biases, and they are not going to go away. While that might be a disappointment to those of you with raging inner control freaks, the sooner that you accept that, the easier it will be for all of us (and I mean that sincerely). We are also all more than a little bit irrational; it is what makes us delightfully human and quirky on a good day, and astonishingly baffling on bad ones.

The reality is that we do exercise bounded rationality. We pretend to be rational, and want perfect answers, but as soon as we find a reasonably good one we tend to stop looking for anything better (the technical term for this is “satisficing,” and yes, that’s a real word). We like to think we exhaustively evaluate opportunities, but we tend to simply deal with them in the order that they show up. And while we like to think that we make thoughtful decisions, most of them operate on gut intuition.

An important point is that none of that is wrong. Our brains have quite literally evolved that way, as a survival mechanism. When I say we are cognitively lazy, I mean it in the nicest possible way: our brains are simply trying to be efficient, and get on with the day running on the least amount of energy possible. Some of us are better at that than others, which occasionally gets us in trouble, but the reason that we don’t comprehensively weigh all of the options of every possible decision and select for the highest utility is simply that it is an extraordinary amount of work, and incredibly tiring. We simply don’t have the bandwidth to do this all day. Smart people recognize this, which is why Obama always wore grey or blue suits; he didn’t want to waste time making decisions he didn’t need to.

Not all of us are dealing with the decision making challenge of being President of the United States, of course, but that doesn’t mean that we are not trying to get on with life and be successful in whatever organizational context that we find ourselves. And that leads to the second important point: Everyone around is us dealing with the same unconscious biases, the cognitive laziness, the decision fatigue and the same bounded rationality. That’s not to say that there aren’t differences between people, but the important ones boil down to: motive, intention and attention.

Successful navigation of the flotsam and jetsam of your organization requires keeping a generalized sense of the environment and the players within it. That means building an overall understanding of the culture at play and what that means for how things get done in your organization. Some organizations, sadly, are toxic; those are difficult ones to make progress in without some severe moral compromises, and simple survival until the next one is often an appropriate strategy. Other cultures are rigid and hierarchical. Some are subtly political, while others are more overt about it. There are organizations that operate by the book, and others that make it up as they go along; still others state they operate by the book, but in reality do something completely different. Moreover, culture on an organizational scale may identify the themes, but how those themes play out in actuality varies by division, department and team.

What you are looking for are the cues for how to take action in the organization. In particular, you are trying to understand the rule system by which the organization operates. That is not to just say that you need to understand the formal rules: the policies, procedures, guidelines and processes that exist. You also seek understanding of how the rules are enacted and brought to life; what is done in reality may be very different than what is written down.

The final question about organizational functioning is the degree to which the difference between formal and practical rules is recognized, acknowledged and tolerated. This might vary by area of the business, and also by who is taking action (or who is determining the acceptability of the actions being taken). Different areas and players often enjoy different levels of latitude in what gets done, how it gets done and how much flexibility is allowed.

What we have outlined so far builds a picture of the landscape of the organization we are operating in. While that is the field that we play in, it is the people acting within it that bring it to life. Sometimes, that means that you are responding to the actions and intentions of others. At other times, you are trying to get something done. Inevitably, there will also be overlaps between these modes.

How we respond to the actions and intentions of others veers directly back to our biases and unconscious functioning. It is useful to recognize that our unconscious minds are at play much of the time, and that our responses to a vast majority of circumstances are on a similar level of autopilot as how Obama chose his suit. More important is recognizing the circumstances when you should not be on autopilot, and where more detailed consideration needs to come to the fore.

The most obvious reason to engage your conscious brain in rational consideration is that something significantly different happens than the norm. You might be asked to take on a project, or to consider a new role within the organization. A problem may have emerged that you need to address, or you might have received more detailed scrutiny on a status report than you have previously experienced. A routine meeting might go unexpectedly sideways, or you might experience significant and unanticipated resistance in facilitating a discussion. All of these are clues that something else is going on in the field, and that it is time to wake up and pay attention.

There are some more subtle cues, also. That niggling feeling of anxiousness that you can’t explain in the pit of your stomach is actually a useful—if not altogether well understood—part of our nervous systems. Our unconscious minds pick up on cues that our conscious attention ignores, misses or dismisses as irrelevant. That anxious gnawing is often how your unconscious tries to get your attention; paying attention to it can be valuable. Speaking personally, I was surprised at how often that early radar signalled incoming action; at this point, I’ve learned to at least be aware of it.

There is one other cue that your conscious brain can listen to, one that requires a bit more work. It is effort, however, that pays significant dividends. Building a practice of conscious reflection is a way of stepping back and assessing what’s happening in the field of play around us. It’s an opportunity to not just notice the actions being taken, but to identify patterns and think through the rhymes and reasons behind them. Journalling can be a great way to do this: not just taking the time to write out what is front-and-centre in your mind today, but also going back and observing the patterns and changes in what is holding your attention over time.

Taking action is where you stop observing and start doing. While your normal routines are best served by your normal patterns, it is once again in the exceptional moments that it helps to perk up and pay attention. Proceeding with a course of action—particularly if we assume it is an action that has some political consequences—requires thought and choice. There is why, of course, which speaks to your motive and intention. There is also when to act, and with whom. And perhaps most importantly, there is how.

Making these choices requires you sifting and sorting the information you have collected so far. Where you have flexibility is how you interpret and then move forward on your choices. Let’s say you need support for a course of action on your project (or you are trying to get a project approved). Considering the roles you play within the organization defines how you might show up, and also influences and shapes who you can approach. Role is what gives you plausible reason to have a meeting or interaction. Within the role, there is again a question of the rules that are at play. Not only is there understanding the rule, however; there is also how you choose to interpret the rule (you have options) and then enact that interpretation (which provides you with further options once again).

You might approach an executive you need support from under the guise of one role, and while engaged in conversation bring up the other matter you need to address. This may be done formally, or informally. You may lay out why you are bringing it up, and how you are interpreting the circumstances to identify why you need their support. You might get their agreement, or they may oppose you, in which case you are no further ahead but also no further behind. They may also strategize with you about how to move forward support from that point, and how to enlist the help that you both need in order to continue taking action.

In all of this, we are engaging in political action. We are taking the steps we need, and securing the support we require, to move forward on the activities we are responsible for. Politics is simply about getting things done through people, and we all have the capacity—and the need–to engage in it. Doing so is not mysterious, or limited to those who have an innate capacity for it; there is process that can be understood, and the good players know the process and make conscious choices about how to navigate within it. The trick is in knowing the circumstances where conscious action is necessary, understanding what action is already underway, and then weighing the options available, the roles that we can take and the rules that are in operation.

The world is not wholly rational, and it never will be. But a little bit of understanding and reflection goes a long way in making our actions more conscious and deliberate when it matters, and knowing which situations are the ones that count.

2 Comments to “Navigating A Not-Quite-Rational Planet”

  1. Michael Hilbert says:

    Mark.. Very thought provoking…. Making me rethink the need to be more aware of my auto-pilot thought process when interacting within my organizations culture. Mike

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks, Mike!

      Questioning auto-pilot (and when to leave it engaged, and when to turn it off) is a big part of this. Using it is a survival skill; trying to function without auto-pilot is as dysfunctional as running on it exclusively. The key is knowing when paying attention matters, which is probably the greatest role and value of having wisdom and experience. This is where rules fall down, and intuition plays a valued—if under-appreciated—role.


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