There’s nothing quite as impressive as a leader who knows when to be suspicious.
I’m talking about healthy suspicion, not negativity.
Investigating problems with appropriate suspicion helps a leader distinguish a real threat from a fake one. Since real and fake threats are intermingled and camouflaged, it’s often difficult to tell the difference. A leader’s suspicion sharpens discernment.
To learn about the benefits of reasonable suspicion, you might consider, as I have, the behavior of criminal investigators of child abuse.
Because child abuse is an emotionally explosive issue, it is highly vulnerable to extreme reactions. On one extreme are head-in-the-sand avoiders who want to believe it could never happen in their neighborhood or family. On the other are compulsive fearmongers who see abuse where it doesn’t exist.
These extremes reveal the twin dangers in any decision process: observational blindness and hysteria.
Observational blindness is the tendency to avoid seeing what triggers discomfort and to miss important clues.
Before Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for sexually abusing boys while employed at Penn State University, his wife, Dottie, wrote an indignant letter to the judge, criticizing her husband’s accusers. Though her husband had been convicted on 45 counts of abuse, Dottie didn’t want to believe he had sexually molested children. Her bias led to observational blindness.
Much child abuse gets missed because family members don’t want to hear or believe reality, and children are afraid to speak up.
In an eerily similar way, many businesses suffer and important conversations are sidestepped because leaders don’t want to hear the truth and employees are afraid to speak up.
Consider that business leaders who end up declaring bankruptcy often trace the problem to their own blindness: "I missed the signs that were right in front of my nose." "I got too caught up in wishful thinking."
Observational blindness is frequently cited during post-mortems on failed business mergers: "Our due diligence focused on the numbers, but we missed the importance of relationships and culture fit."
Observational blindness also helps explain poor hiring decisions, marital affairs, high-risk betting and impulsive college choices.
It’s the nature of being blindsided that one learns the truth only after a window of opportunity closes.
Hysteria works differently: Instead of ignoring what is real, its purveyors are "certain" of stories built on hearsay or panicky half-truths.
Unmanageable emotional excess, producing unproven charges, has been a feature of American society since the tragic murders of so-called "witches" in late 17th-century New England.
Just as child abuse victims, family members and mental health professionals can get caught up in not seeing a real threat, they can get caught up in seeing a threat that doesn’t exist.
Social service and criminal justice systems annually receive false reports, conflicting claims and gut-wrenching child abuse stories that cannot be substantiated. For example, gruesome allegations about satanic ritual abuse of children have been reported since the late 1970s, with evidence lagging sensationalism by a wide margin.
Kenneth Lanning, a recognized expert on childhood sexual abuse and federal agent who investigated violent crime for 30 years, studied ritual child abuse and concluded in a 1992 FBI report:
"There are many possible alternative answers to the question of why victims are alleging things that don’t seem to be true. The first step in finding those answers is to admit the possibility that some of what the victims describe may not have happened. Some of what the victims allege may be true and accurate, some may be misperceived or distorted, some may be screened or symbolic, and some may be ‘contaminated’ or false. The problem and challenge, especially for law enforcement, is to determine which is which. This can only be done through active investigation."
Business leaders can learn from Lanning’s reasonableness in response to anxiety-riddled allegations.
As with sexual abuse, hysteria in business might be invisible, but it’s never far away. The Y2K scare 13 years ago was but one glaring example. How well founded in reality are the daily problems leaders judge to be "big" and "crucial"?
Watch how vigilantly many business leaders respond to daily stock market reports. In a financial hysteria cycle driven by greed and fear, decisions seesaw based mostly on unreliable evidence. When investors are feeling cheerful and greedy, they shell out high prices for marginal businesses. When they feel pessimistic and fearful, they downgrade the value of strong businesses. It’s this constant emotional reactivity that promotes wild swings in the markets.
And the worry doesn’t stop at the office. At a recent retreat I hosted for organizational leaders, I was struck by how many executives fear they "might be screwing up" their kids.
The language of healthy suspicion
What does it take for a leader to find the middle ground between "too slow to see" and "too quick to judge"? How does one find the balance between naivete and cynicism?
A calm demeanor, a commitment to look at all sides of an issue before passing judgment and a willingness to stand alone in the midst of an emotional storm create a fertile environment for healthy suspicion. The trick is to investigate vigorously without drawing conclusions too readily.
A leader knows she has developed a suspecting mindset when she refuses to allow the pressure of the moment to propel her head toward the sand or toward a premature solution.
Her language turns thoughtful, even clever:
"Possibly, but I want to investigate."
"I’m not sure."
"I don’t know."
"I need to think about this."
"It’s too soon to tell."
That language is fueled by inner "serene tenacity," an unspectacularly winning mindset built on a fundamental belief: In organizational leadership, as in situations of alleged abuse, investigation should precede conclusions.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].
2/1/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].