People in general even intellectually capable individuals have this tendency to attribute a lot of value to the utterances of people in positions of power.
What does Steve Balmer, former CEO, Microsoft; Mike Glenn, former executive VP, FedEx and Dieter Zetsche, head, Daimler Benz, have in common. All the three great business icons missed the tides of time by a wide margin.
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Balmer was way off the mark in predicting Google’s future calling it a house of cards, while Glenn didn’t consider Amazon even a remote challenge. Similar scorn was poured recently on a motor automobile website by Zetsche saying, “a smartphone belongs in your pocket not on road” when asked about connected self-driven cars. History proved both Balmer and Glenn wrong and it’s just a matter of time beforeZetschee will eat a humble pie.
But why so many of the great, towards whom the business community looks for direction and inspiration, go so wrong in their assessment of future. It can be attributed to two major psychological traits – Mana effect and for want of a better term, assimilation deficit.
People in general even intellectually capable individuals have this tendency to attribute a lot of value to the utterances of people in positions of power. This tendency of attributing inordinate wisdom to successful people is called Mana effect.
We think that those who have succeeded or excelled in one field are wise enough to comment about every other field. It is an established social fact with no base in reality. It’s due to this we have film stars commenting of international politics, social workers commenting on judiciary, bureaucrats sharing their pearls of wisdom on filmmaking and poets talking about agriculture reforms.
A Question of Competency
It’s not that these people don’t have the right to talk about such issues. That’s not the point. The larger question is, are they competent enough to talk about these issues or have they acquired enough knowledge about the field where they can talk something with some authority.
In today’s economic arena, technology and its introduction in the market is changing at such a breakneck speed that people who have devoted their lives in one sector find it difficult to keep up with all the changes happening within their own narrow domain. That’s the reason above mentioned gentlemen completely missed the rise of a new class of digital industries and products.
If one can’t keep pace with the changes in their own domain of expertise then what gives them the right to comment about other domains about which they don’t know anything and why should we invest our time listening to a smart sound bite signifying nothing.
A closer look at human evolution suggests that our ability to learn starts declining after the age of five when we have learnt a language. Once we are in a profession and learn basic skills to survive and at times thrive, the scope of learning almost inevitably starts declining very sharply.
“Level Of Incompetence”
This decline is due to lack of time and inclination. It’s because we see the results of putting in hours and years of learning a skill set that’s paying us relatively well, we become comfortable in that rigmarole and loose the hunger to learn more. Also, we are engrossed in meeting daily, weekly and monthly deadlines and goals and whatever little time is left needs to be devoted to family that we have started somewhere in the late 20s or early thirties.
The lack of inclination and time persists for a decade and then we all arrive in a space which was categorised by late Canadian Professor Dr Lawrence J Peter as our “level of incompetence”. During our mid-career, while the going was good and we eased into a comfort zone the world kept changing as it had always. The only shift is that the pace of change has accelerated exponentially.
When facing this whirlwind from your corner office or cubicle (whatever you are offered) your first reaction is to deny it. So the usual reactions either dismiss or lampoon it with an exaggerated flourish. But it only hides people’s ignorance and deep-seated fears. In the second stage, people try to thwart the process of change by delaying, denying or discarding it.
So how can leaders in any field avoid the minefield of “foot-in-the-mouth” — uttering a smart statement — which in time comes back to haunt them?
Well, the answer lies in knowing and realising that we all have limits to learning. Sooner or later there will be hundreds of things that we don’t know. Change is coming at a pace faster than we can assimilate and no one is super-human enough to see it clearly and completely. So the principle number one is, never be too cocky about predicting the future and desist from being trapped in Mana effect both for yourself and to the others.
Secondly, as Steve Jobs says, to tide over your lack of knowledge, stay hungry and stay foolish. What the Zen masters in the East say always have a beginner’s mind.
Keshav Chaturvedi trains managers to appreciate twin threats of disruptive technologies and climate change to fully utilise the opportunities presented by sustainable development.