Mental Evolution for Aspiring Organizational Leaders

March 12, 2009
13 min read

Mental Evolution for Aspiring Organizational Leaders


There are flaws in our minds that prevent us from being rich and happy.  Our bodies have been perfected over the millions of years of evolution from unicellular amoeba to present day homo sapiens.  But the mind as such is hardly fifty thousand years old.  Over the last century this mind grew exponentially compared to the remaining millennia because of the drastic scientific and technological leaps mankind took.  Yet only a handful of great thinkers like Copernicus, Newton, Edison, Darwin and Einstein have emerged and revolutionized the way the rest of us think and see the world.  It is time that more people follow league in this ‘intellectual evolution’ following suit of the political evolution that Nepal witnessed.  Its forerunners will be none other than you – organizational leaders.  You will be the Buddha’s , the Jesus’s and the Mohammad’s of this new generation: you will lead your employees to a new way of thinking and consequently of living and working.  One Bill Gates or Dirubai Ambani is not enough to meet the overcome the obstacles miring Nepal and put it on the world map of great prosperity: more and more business visionaries and empire builders are needed in more and more sectors using their minds in the most powerful ways. 


All this sounds great but unless we correct our mental frameworks for perceiving the phenomena in the world, for relating to one another, for building families and for running companies, we will miss the mark. 


Correct framework to come to conclusions

I was initiated in this mind-stuff when I read the book called Fifth Dimension by Peter Senge.  Thereon I realized that in terms of mind, man in general was like a baby waking on his fours.  Senge brings us to the concept of ‘ladder of inference’. Through this analogy he is trying to explain to us in a scientific manner what age old proverb, “Don’t run after the crow thinking he has taken your ear based on hearsay before checking if your ear is still intact” and the wise idiom “Don’t jump into conclusions” have been trying to tell us. 


Stephen Covey, author of best selling self-help book 7 Habits of Effective People, relates an example relating to our current mental model, which isn’t trained to climb down the ladder of inference to reach a conclusion.  One time he was conducting a seminar.  When he speaks the audience is always spellbound: his baldhead and hypnotic voice throw off an aura of mastery.  At this particular workshop, his mother was part of the audience. In front of her were two men.  They enraged her because they talked to each other the whole session.  She concluded, “How rude these men are!”  They also happened to be Asians and later were she like all of us she might have complained to herself, “Asians are noisy.” This is a habit of generalization. 


Later on she reported this matter to her son, Stephen.  He checked out what was the matter by asking the two Asians: he did not want to directly accept any conclusion.  This is the sign of a mind that has undergone evolution.  This is what he found out: one of the two did not understand English and the other was his translator! 


Some of us studied science.  The concept of ‘ladder of inference’ is best understood in terms of science.  First an experiment is set up.  The results are observed.  From these observations an analysis of the causes (inference) is made. Only From these inferences a conclusion is drawn.  Although we are aware of this process of thought formation academically it is very hard for us to apply this is real life, even in small matters under stressful conditions. 


This shortcoming of the human mind to climb down the ‘ladder of inference’, which we can define as the ability to first observe an event from all angles, then try to find out where it is coming from and then finally coming to a conclusion, is most apparent at the family level.  The father refuses to buy a toy for the child who wants it desperately.  This is an event.  Ideally the child should make a complete observation: what tone is he using, what is he body language, has he had a bad day, how is the financial standings of the family, what are the current family priorities for expenditures, how does the father view the request for the toy?  Then the child should link the various observations so as to form a causational chain as follows,  “Father does not see how important the toy is for me; it is natural as he thinks from an adult’s point of view.  Also currently he needs to immediately buy something expensive for the house.  On top of that the savings are dwindling as we are spending so much on our education and housing loan.  In addition he had a stressful day at work because he lost a big tender.  Even though he said he would not buy the toy, his body language and tone of voice seemed almost apologetic.” Finally the child should come to a conclusion in this line, “I should not expect so much from my father.  When he will be able to afford it, he will buy me the toy.  Instead of nagging him for the toy, if I inspire him to win more tenders, he will earn more and thus have more saving and thus he can buy me my toy.  Even though he refused to buy it to me now, he is a great dad.” The child would be able to say all this because he understands his dad fully by virtue of having climbed down the ladder of inference or used scientific reasoning in a mundane daily event.  Finally he can make a generalization, “Sometimes life is sour but in the long run it is for your own good.”


However, we know this is absurd to envision any child thinking in this fashion.  Still a day will come when children shall be born with such mental circuitry thanks to DNA of enlightened parents. 


In the present mental state, the child upon being denied the toy would come to one or more of the following conclusions:

  1. Dad hates me
  2. I am unworthy
  3. I will never get what I want
  4. Only if I throw a tantrum will I get anything in this house
  5. I must grow up fast and earn on my own to get what I want


These conclusions will lead to generalizations such as:

  1. All fathers are stingy
  2. Life is miserable
  3. You can’t get all that want you want in life


None of the above five conclusions are healthy as they are like dental plaque waiting to make cavities in the teeth once sweet (generalization) get stuck and react chemically. 


We can laugh it off when the matter is about a child. But in truth 99% of mankind is guilty of jumping to conclusions and making baseless generalization. As a family person, I have seen that most of the quarrels, break-ups and misunderstandings originate as a failure to use the ‘ladder of inference’.  As a management consultant, I have seen poor performance and low motivation on part of employees they came to the wrong conclusions and made the false generalizations about their boss, their companies and their clients.  The same mental shortcoming overshadows the owners, and managers too although to a lesser extent, may be due to experience, affecting their leadership and judgment .  The higher you rise the hierarchy the more you see people who are less fatalistic or saying, “I already know’, ‘I am right’ and ‘I can’t be wrong’.  They say, ‘Could be it that what I think as a fact, is just a lie?’, ‘How can I be sure I am right?’, and ‘What could prove me I am wrong?’


My point is simple: if we want a happy family and great teamwork in our organizations we must train our minds to use the ladder of inference in every situation, no matter how mediocre it is.


No right, no wrong

My mother always bugs me because I leave the toilet, like all men do, with the seat open.  I thought I was wrong and she was right. Her reasoning is irrefutable, “In this way the smell will disperse in the air and it will not stink.’  But still being a son, I used to neglect this request to tease her. 


When I was abroad, I was renting a room from an old couple.  Having been taught by my mother that closing the seat cover was the right thing to do, I did exactly so because I had no intention of getting on the wrong foot with the old folks. 


Who is right?  Who is wrong? What is right? What is wrong? 


To my surprise in a few months, the old man came to me and embarrassed,  told me, “Don’t close the toilet seat after you do your business.  Keep in open.’ Before I could fix my mental fuse he continued, “In this way, the smell will get absorbed by the water in the pan and it will not stink.”  My mind again short-circuited.  Who is right? Who is wrong? 


My new-born baby was being taken care by an elderly relative.  She put a veil over his face.  She reasoned, “The baby has been used to live in darkness in the mother’s womb.  It will thus prefer a darker setting.” 


She left and my mother came and she exclaimed why we had put a veil on the face of the baby.  Before I could answer, she reasoned, “The baby has been used to live in darkness in the mother’s womb.  It will be tired of darkness and prefer light for a change.” 


Who is right?  Who is wrong? What is right? What is wrong? 


The definition of right and wrong differs from one culture to another.  Since organizations also have cultures, I think the best policies are:

  1. No right, no wrong
  2. Respect each other’s perceptions
  3. Don’t get into the right-wrong debate trap unless it is a matter of life and death
  4. If it is a matter of life and death, do or die, use the scientific approach (as explained above) to determine the best practice
  5. Bring in the concept of ‘perception’ to explain differences like the picture, designed in Harvard University some time back, in which there is both a young woman and an old woman, but only either one of then can be seen at a time.  There is similar picture of a pot and the body of a woman. 


Finding meaning

As a first time father, my ears have been forcefully fed with so many horrible baby-stories that at one point I almost felt I could become another such story.  Every parent is filled with dread during pregnancy as a result of the recounting of these cases that occurred to someone’s relative or friend, making it even more real and pressing.  When two would-be couples talk, they do so in terms of such cases.  It is hard to get out of this kind of mental fixing.  What if it happens to you also? 


Similarly organizations are plagued with so many stories that are broadly of two types:

  1. There was this staff and he got fired for nothing. 
  2. Look at her; she is in this position for 15 years doing the same thing since she started.


On the good side they offer precautions to take.  On the bad side, they make false claims and skew the truth or fact.  Stories are vivid and compel us to find a meaning.  The problem is that we find destructive meaning because the stories themselves are ill conceived. 


I advise my clients to make use of stories to convince people, create a grapevine in which such stories will be transmitted to all employees, fill the air of the company with the obvious messages of empowerment and rewards for it drawn from the stories, make the working environment as a consequence surreal like a forest in a desert.  Done with enough research (to collect and fine-tune the stories), untiring management by walking about (MBWA) and fanatic passion, this story telling approach works as most multi national corporations in the Top 50 Fortune will tell you.  Look at the ads of Fed Ex where the employees go at great length overcoming all obstacles to get the package to their destination on time. 


Great CEO’s know that the human mind has a weakness to derive meaning from stories, to believe those derivations and to act based on them.  Great leaders since early days, used this weakness of human mind to their advantage by telling their followers stories favorable to establish the leaders’ rules, will.  Kings of past embraced religions less for piousness and more of the fables they brought.  Till today we are transfixed with stories of kings and their mighty power.  It was a leadership function well done. 


What I am driving at is that our minds, find it hard to do comparative studies of various stories to see whether they have similarities, how they differ and what message does the composer of the story wanted to send, why?  In any master’s degree course we are taught this skill of comparison on a large scale, in PhD this skill is further pushed to its limits adding more materials to compare before making their thesis.  Still as we mentioned earlier, although some of us have built a more advanced mind, it is still limited to academics.  We are not able to use it find out the truth for mundane cases. 


In the above examples, parents and employees ideally should collect as many stories as possible, find out how many similar cases they are, how they differ, why, what is in common, why, what conditions were fulfilled and what was missing, how is it different and how is it alike their own situations, and then only they should attempt to find the meaning.  Then only the precautions they take will be truly effective.  Otherwise stories paralyze like the employee basing his conviction only on one particular case, would prevent himself from performing like a star in fear of not being recognized and thus get disappointed as a precaution: a message he derived from the story. 


In the end

What we discussed are only few of the flaws of the human mind inherent in its present state of evolution and the mental actions we must take to correct them.  When you will, you shall be enlightened, happy and rich.  All great men said it, “Wealth starts in the mind first.”