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Marcel Proust once said, The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

The more you know, the harder it seems to be to learn new ways. Why is that so? It is because what we think we know tends to reinforce itself, and things that don’t support what we already believe, we subconsciously reject. It has to do with how our brains are wired. When we move into a new culture, either when we move to a new city, or when we move into a new organization, we tend to adopt much of the prevailing culture.

Most of us fear social isolation, and going against how everyone else sees things is a risky and dangerous business. Every organization develops a culture, the main difference is whether there is an explicit effort to create the culture you want, or whether it is the unintended effect of how we work together. If you want to succeed, you need to fit in. Strongly enforced norms of behavior develop, even when the rules are unspoken and unwritten. Once culture sets up, it can be like concrete.

As we grew our business after our father’s death, my brother and I began work to build a learning organization in our company. We had read Peter Senge’s seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. We wanted to apply the concepts to help transform our 35-year-old construction equipment business. These moves proved successful. We quadrupled the size of our business in the 1990’s after more than a decade on a plateau.

We started an equipment rental business at the same time we were trying to regain an entrepreneurial feel to the core business. Over time, our father’s mercurial temper created a culture where everyone was afraid to make a decision or take a risk. We moved to a participative management style, equipping empowering our people to solve problems closer to the customer.

As we learned about the equipment rental business, we knew we needed a culture of speed and customer service to compete. With the new people coming into the business, it was easy to create the culture we wanted. Many of the attributes we built into our rental culture, we tried to export into the culture of our core business, to create a competitive advantage.

We had a very difficult time exporting this culture of speed into our equipment distribution business, even though people were working side-by-side, operating under the same roof. We painfully learned that an organization inculcated into a culture over thirty years will not change easily. There were deeply embedded mental models, norms and expectations that persisted despite many efforts at change. Many of these cultural roots were implicit. They were unwritten, but everyone knew the rules. The culture was based on shared mental models of how the world works. (See more on Mental Models here.)

It is amazing how culture forms, and is passed on to those who join the organization. I remember reading of an experiment with chimps that demonstrates the enduring nature of implicit norms. They put half a dozen chimps in a habitat with a set of stairs going up the back wall to a door. They would put a basket of fruit at the top of the stairs, and when a chimp started climbing the stairs, they would turn a fire hose on him, and everyone got wet.

Soon, when a chimp moved towards the stairs, the others started making noises and prevented the chimp from going up the stairs. They replaced one chimp a week, and soon, they did not even need to use the fire hose. Each time a chimp would make for the snack the rest would scream and block the move. The behavior continued even after the last chimp who saw the fire hose had been rotated out. Even when no individual had experienced or seen the negative conditioning, they continued to pass along the rule, “Don’t go up the stairs.”

In many ways, culture is about shared beliefs and shared norms. We teach newcomers the rules so they can get along and do well in the organization. As we worked to build an empowered organization, we encountered a number of people who weren’t excited about being empowered. They resisted more responsibility, and were afraid to make decisions. Often, they seemed to see the power being in the circumstances surrounding them, and did not feel they had the power chart their own destiny.

In the mid-1990’s, we stumbled upon Chris Argyris’ work at the Harvard Business School. Argyris had developed what he called the Ladder of Inference, which helps explain why we constantly cherry-pick from available data to select data that supports what we already believe. The image below describes the Ladder.At the bottom of the latter are observable data, like what you would see in a video recording of a scene. If we all see the same video, we should all perceive the same thing, right? Not so fast. In his book Iconoclast: a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently, Gregory Berns delves deeply into the difference between seeing and perceiving. Berns says,

Vision is not the same as perception. Vision is the process wy which photons enter the eye and are transformed into neural signals in the brain. Perception, on the other hand, is th much more complex process by which the brain interprets these signals. The end result is a mental image that reaches consciousness.

Here is a good example. Berns describes it this way:

The optic nerve is a cordlike structure that contains all the fibers from all the retinal neurons. Because they are collected into one place and pass through a hole in the retina, no photoreeptors can occupy that space, and a blind spot results. but, even though you have a hole in the retina, you don’t see a black hole in your visual field. The brain mentally fils it in with its best guess of what should be there.

Amazing. He goes on to describe the overload our brains would experience if they tried to take in all the visual data we encounter. He describes the brain evolving to use as little energy as needed to get by. In doing so, it takes some shortcuts. Berns says:

So that it is not overwhelmed with information processing, the brain makes predictions about what it is seeing and changes these predictions only when it makes an error. It becomes difficult to see things in ways different than you expect.

The result he states this way: The most likely way that you perceive something will be in a manner consistent with your past experience. Commonplace perceptions feel comfortable and cost little energy to process. Conversely, uncommon perceptions force the brain into a different mode of processing in which it must figure out what exactly it is seeing, and this costs energy.  The brain extracts useful pieces of information and discards others. In the interest of crafting an efficient visual system, the brain must make guesses about what it is actually seeing.

Mark Twain said, Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.

So, we begin the Ladder of Inference with observable data. Yet, given what we know about brain science, the next step on the ladder becomes clear, we select data from what we observe. Since the brain cannot see and absorb everything, we look for a subset we can make sense of and we draw meaning from that subset of data. We add meaning both from personal and cultural experience. We then make assumptions from this subset of data, which now is attached to the meaning we added. These assumptions we have inferred lead to drawing conclusions. These conclusions then reinforce our beliefs, entrenching them deeper into our worldview or mental model. The actions we take arise out of our beliefs.

Within this ladder of inference lies a reinforcing loop. Once I adopt a belief about the world, I then go about selecting data that reinforces that belief, making it harder for me to see things differently. The longer this loop reinforces what I believe, the more I will have to unlearn to see things differently. It is a paradigm-creating loop because it operates subconsciously.

In a team or close knit organization, this process can lead to groupthink, and damage the whole organization. Wikipedia defines groupthink in this way:

Groupthink is a mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking.

So, even if we manage the difficult task of seeing things differently, if what we perceive runs counter to the ideas of a group or a leader we admire, we will be very hesitant to espouse our new way of seeing things. Berns talks about experiments in which there is one subject in a group of ten people in a room. The first nine, who are in on the study, will misidentify an object they are shown on a card. By the time the tenth person sees the image, he or she feels a strong pressure to conform. The experiment showed that people gave the right answer 95% of the time if they were alone, but in the group, only 25% would give the right answer after the whole group gave the wrong answer. This experiment shows how fear of social isolation will distort perception.

The Ladder of Inference is a valuable tool to understand. It reinforces the need for diverse teams which can bring multiple perspectives to any issue. It also reinforces the need for us to have truth-tellers in our lives to keep us from getting too caught up in distortions of reality that will blindside us in damaging ways. Have you been up the ladder of inference today? I travel up and down it multiple times each day. I’m glad to be aware of how it interferes with seeing reality clearly.

Ideas and inspiration for this piece came from "The leader with the ‘beginners mind’ ”-Author: Kim, Daniel  Publication: Healthcare Forum | v36n4 | p. 32-37 | Jul/Aug 1993 | CHRIS ARGYRIS is James B. Conant professor emeritus at the Harvard graduate schools of business and education.

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