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Book Review: Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps

5 steps to unlock your leadership in complexity

Jennifer Garvey Berger, an experienced researcher, coach and educator, charts 5 mindtraps that get in the way of us taking effective action when conditions are complex, ambiguous, fast paced and uncertain. The book offers key questions and new habits that will help you escape the mindtraps.

Garvey Berger’s book helps us see what gets in our way in situations where the future isn’t predictable and the multitude of connections and the dynamics of relationships make it hard to see our way forward.

In a webinar Garvey Berger began the session with Portia Nelson’s Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. You probably know the poem – it’s about falling in the same hole in the sidewalk 3 times before changing course to miss the hole, then going down another street altogether.

The poem is a fitting description of how some of our well-developed ways of leading don’t always work for us.  As in the poem, we don’t see the hole and fall in, then we pretend the hole isn’t there, and before we know it falling in the hole has become a habit.

Invisible mindtraps get in our way

Garvey Berger helps us see the invisible habits we’ve developed as leaders and how they get in the way of leading in complex conditions. These habits were useful in simpler times and served us well in many situations. However, these habits are no longer fit for function in complex environments. They show up as mindtraps, preventing us from fully engaging in the interconnected world of today.

Garvey Berger offers key questions to help us recognize each habit (see the hole) and then develop new, more effective ways of responding (walk around the hole, then walk down another street).

The 5 mindtraps are:

  1. Simple stories
  2. Certainty / being right
  3. Hasty agreement
  4. Trying to control
  5. Our ego.

Trap #1 – Simple stories

I can easily relate to all 5 traps. Mea culpa. You’ll probably find one trap that resonates most for you. For me, it was the first – how our brains naturally create simple stories to help us understand the world. You may be familiar with Argyris’ Ladder of Inference. Once we have selected and interpreted facts and drawn a conclusion about a situation, we use our conclusions to take action. The tricky thing is that next time we are faced with similar circumstances, we tend to select facts and act on conclusions that reinforce what we already know. This all happens quickly, reinforcing the accuracy of our story.

Once we’ve confirmed our story in our own mind, we tend to disregard other interpretations (Trap #2, our story is right).  Sometimes this is a good thing – like when cause and effect are obvious and you don’t need to re-think the situation. However, a simple story is not helpful in complex situations where cause and effect are not easily seen.

The new habit to help us walk around our simple stories is to look for 3 different stories that could explain the same set of facts. What if the presenting facts supported 3 different, yet equally valid conclusions? Immediately we’re open to seeing alternative interpretations. I like the advice to look for (at least) 3 stories as this gets us beyond the binary choice between my story and yours.

Simple stories rarely work or help in complex situations. Most often you’ll need to explore multiple perspectives to get a more accurate take on the dynamics of a fast paced interactive system.

I recommend the book wholeheartedly. All 5 traps are familiar, and the new habits are workable and easy to incorporate into your day.

What are your mindtraps?

  1. Think about a situation with your team right now where there are multiple connections and interdependencies. What story are you holding about this situation? Imagine 3 (or more) stories that could equally explain the situation. What difference do you notice about your sense of the situation after crafting these alternative stories?
  2. Look at the list of 5 mindtraps. Which trap most resonates for you? See the book for ways to move beyond the traps.

To learn more

Cultivating Leadership: https://www.cultivatingleadership.co.nz/books/unlocking-leadership-mindtraps

Podcast [01:15:41]: The Amiel Show Episode 93: Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps

November 22, 2019
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