Stacking the Deck with Jokers

Group Think for Leaders

There's a phenomenon in survival and safety/accident research where people increase their exposure to risk by getting away with inherently risky acts. Getting away with it creates a mental model that doesn't see the risk, or believes the activity to be safe. In some cases, this is compounded by the fact that every time the activity is repeated it builds up more "energy" for a failure.

A good example of this is people texting while driving. The first time someone does it, they feel uncertain and nervous. Nothing bad happens so they do it again, maybe giving even more time to the screen. Gradually they desensitise themselves to the risk, feeling like it does not apply to them.

I call it "Stacking the deck with Jokers". At some point, someone will brake suddenly in front of them. They are unprepared, not alert, and have no plan in mind. They have no "real" cards to play. The research shows people in this state become victims of accidents that were totally obvious and predictable to others. If they survive, they report being completely taken by surprise...

We do this in the business environment as well. It looks like a lack of self leadership - ignoring an intuitive sense that something isn't quite right, following someone else's lead with blind faith, developing a sense of complacency with team members or customers.

There are some simple measures to avoid falling into this state. A friend demonstrated them beautifully as a pilot in a close formation flying display. It was led by a well known and respected pilot of considerable experience. The weather was marginal for flying to the extent that any good flying instructor would caution their students never to fly under those conditions. He described the lead up to take off:

  • exhilaration for being part of it
  • busy, focused on ensuring his preflight checks were thorough and complete
  • a sense of peer pressure (we have a display to put on, everyone else seems happy to go)
  • unquestioning faith in the experience, qualification and leadership of the pilot in charge - "if he thinks its safe with all his experience, I will follow him"
  • a small niggling feeling of doubt about the weather

At the last moment he aborted his takeoff. The others completed their flight uneventfully, stacking the deck with jokers like "its OK to fly in conditions like that".

What made it possible for my friend to abort? It was all about self leadership:

Intuition - He paid attention to the small but persistent intuitive feeling that he was putting himself and others at risk.
Self Examination - He began to ask questions like "Would I fly in these conditions under normal circumstances?"
Backing himself - He "switched on" his own training, experience, judgment and thinking and assessed the situation himself, rather than just following the group.
Courage - He exercised the courage of the self leader, and took a decision that was possibly unpopular with the leader and his peers

People who apply these principles are of great value to themselves and those around them - they make it possible to "see" risky mental models and make sound choices. They stack the deck in their favour. Those are valuable skills in leadership.

Is there anyone you follow blindly - especially if it is detrimental to yourself, others and the results you are trying to achieve? What would you need to do to exercise more judgement and self leadership in that situation?