In observation of Women’s History Month, we are featuring blogs written by women who work at Vitalyst about their experience at the annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women, which was recently held in Philadelphia. For our sixth installment, Judy C. Arnold, Vitalyst’s VP of Marketing, shares what she learned about the power of objectivity and inherent bias during a session led by author Elizabeth R. Thornton.

Have you ever overreacted to a situation? Or did you take something personally—that really wasn’t? We are all subjective about how we respond to people and situations in our lives. It’s in our nature.

But our lack of objectivity can undermine leadership effectiveness, according to Elizabeth R. Thornton, author of “The Objective Leader.” Business leaders are expected to make good decisions fast and implement them in even faster time frames. The problem is that when we are under pressure to perform, past experiences can cloud our ability to see things as they are and respond in an unbiased way.

Elizabeth R. Thornton

Elizabeth R. Thornton

At the recent Pennsylvania Conference for Women, I had the pleasure of hearing Thornton present her strategies for identifying unproductive ways of thinking and creating powerful new approaches for continued success. Her positive, no-nonsense delivery, real-life and entertaining examples, and high-energy presentation kept me alert and attentive. There were many aha moments when I could absolutely relate to the scenarios presented—along with the rest of the audience as evidenced in their laughter, guilty looks or empathetic moans.

Objectivity is the ability to see and accept things as they are, to respond thoughtfully and deliberately to changing dynamics

To get a perspective on the fact that we are all inherently subjective, think about this situation: You get an email from a colleague and you perceive a negative or accusatory tone in their communication. Do you immediately react and fire off a nastygram? Or do you wait a bit, then calmly write back and ask for clarification to be sure you understood their intent?

This example illustrates what Thornton explained as mental models we all have that affect our perceptions. Mental models are images, representations or schemes of how we perceive and understand the world around us. They are abstractions of reality. When those mental models cause us to filter what we see and look at the negative, not the positive, those are cognitive errors. And it’s inherent in our subjectivity.

The most common mental models that can have positive and negative traits are:

  • Validation seeker: wants everyone to like them and think they’re smart
  • Perfectionist: strives for everything to be perfect; often high-performing but stressed out; can be too critical and judgmental and a micromanager
  • Competitor: wants to beat everyone and be better than everyone else; might withhold information and not be collaborative
  • Controller: needs to control people, events, traffic, weather… could be a good worker but not a good collaborator or boss
Mental Models

Mental models are abstractions of reality, Thornton explained, and we all have them.

To overcome the challenges presented by these mental models, you need to focus on being objective. Objectivity is the ability to see and accept things as they are, to respond thoughtfully and deliberately to changing dynamics. It’s the ability to question our mental models, understand other people’s points of view, and the capacity to identify ways of thinking and assessing situations the way they are.

Think about this statement: “It is, therefore I see.” That is the most objective reality. You are driving along the road, see a pothole ahead moments before your tire dips into it, and you get a flat. That’s reality. On the other hand, you sometimes think “I see, therefore it is,” which is when we actually make things up about a situation. For instance, your boss walks by your desk and says hello to you every morning. He often praises your hard work and accomplishments, so you’re confident about your performance. One morning he walks past you without a glance or greeting. You assume you did something wrong and begin to panic, inventing circumstances in your mind that may not exist.

So how do you avoid these traps and misperceptions to increase objectivity? Thornton reminded us that objectivity requires perception of the world—recognizing what you really see from what your mental models have conditioned you to believe. The key is to examine them and determine which mental models serve you best. And if you are relying on ones that don’t serve you well, transform them to a belief system that will make you happy and successful. Try to become aware and better control your response. It’s critical not to respond when feeling emotional. But rather to create space, wait and think through your options to respond before acting.

Changing behaviors that you perfected over the years isn’t easy. Personally, I have to remain focused and calm when I find myself in a situation that frustrates me and I feel inclined to immediately (over) react. I have found, however, that it does work to stop and take the time to imagine different perspectives regarding what the other person’s true intent was and to approach the situation positively and professionally.

Thornton wrapped up her session by assuring us that we are not victims of our minds. But rather, we need to recognize that we can change our minds and change our lives. We can learn to see things more clearly and be more objective. We get to choose how we are going to respond.

Elizabeth R. Thornton is an author, speaker, professor of management practice–Babson Executive Education, and adjunct lecturer in entrepreneurship at Babson College. Her first book, “The Objective Leader: How to leverage the Power of Seeing Things as They Are,” is based on a curriculum she developed and teaches to graduate students, entrepreneurs and corporate executives. Thornton has a B.S.B.A. from Georgetown University. She studied at the Oxford Center for Management Studies, and she holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business.

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