Narrow Thinking

Avoiding the Dangers of Narrow Thinking

A recent study led by Professor Emily Ho of Northwestern University asked more than 2,300 participants whether they would like to access various kinds of information that might be beneficial to them. For example, they were offered feedback on recent presentations they’d given, information on how their pension savings compared to their peers, and an opportunity to find out how colleagues rated their strengths and weaknesses.

You might think that the majority of people would want to be given that information, but the study surprisingly found that a significant number of the participants turned it down. As Professor Ho explained to Harvard Business Review, “The conventional wisdom is that people should be eager to get information that can benefit them. That’s the idea behind marketing and public health messaging. But across several scenarios we saw that from 15% to more than 50% of people declined the information we were offering.”

Combating Narrow Thinking

As leaders of sports organizations, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we don’t fall into the same trap as the participants in the study. As we’ve outlined in previous articles, the ability to evaluate a diverse range of perspectives and be ‘dragonfly-eyed’ in our approach to decision making is central to organizational health. Not only do we need to do this for ourselves, but we need to encourage it as a point of principle throughout our organizations.

For Professor Ho, the key to countering the tendency towards narrow thinking is to “recognize that wilful ignorance is all around, including in you.” Additionally, we can’t afford to become complacent as to the efficacy of the systems we might have in place to combat a lack of cognitive diversity or hunger for information through feedback. “Just because you have certain feedback mechanisms in place, that doesn’t mean the job is done,” Ho told HBR. “You might want to think about other ways of communicating that constructive criticism.”

Fostering a Growth Mindset

If we are committed to fostering a growth mindset across our organizations and within ourselves (and reap the rewards that often follow), then we need to be open to information that may contradict our beliefs and help us to acknowledge our own weaknesses and biases. As Ho said of the learning process she went through during the research project, “It definitely made me more aware of when I was reflexively not reading something because I wanted to protect my beliefs or ego. It made me realize that there’s a trade-off between doing that and maybe making a better decision later on.”

Narrow, wilfully ignorant thinking not only reinforces biases and blinds organizations to reality, it also hamstrings effective decision making at every level. We owe it to ourselves and our organizations to ensure that diverse, even dissonant information is constantly being taken into account and used to challenge received wisdom wherever necessary. If not, we risk falling victim to the complacency and cognitive biases that set in when we surround ourselves with only the information that supports the strategies and decisions we wish to follow.

Chris Mann is Head of Content at Sportsology

Image: Caterina Berger/Unsplash

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