Why Do Smart People Do Stupid Things?

Why Do Smart People Do Stupid Things?

The news of Silicon Valley Bank, Republic Bank, and Credit Suisse is everywhere, complete with punditry, commentary, and sometimes scathing criticism. If the criticism is justified, we might ask, “If these people are so darn smart, how did they let this happen?”

It’s a fair question. And while we don’t know for sure, three things leap to mind as likely failures of leadership.

  1. Past success. 
  2. Confusing tactics with strategy.
  3. Failure to test assumptions.

Here’s a look at the three primary answers to the question “why do smart people do stupid things?”

The success hangover.

How can success be a cause of failure? Doesn’t it tell us we’re doing the right things? Yes and no. Success is lovely. I’m a fan, but it can make us lazy. When what we do and how we do it gets us what we want, it’s natural to celebrate, and we should. But afterward, we can learn a great deal if we slow down long enough to dispassionately examine our actions. 

Past success has a nasty side-effect – it fuels over-confidence. Though it’s human to be over-confident in our judgment, when we have “proof” like success, it gives us a particular brand of confidence that can make us blind and tone deaf.

Tactical distraction.

Strategy is about a destination, an ideal future state. It defines “what route we will take,” rather than “what car we will drive.” In business, leaders must decide how they will direct resources – in what direction. When this fundamental decision is left undone or poorly done, decisions about how to deploy resources (people, cash, debt, investment in partnerships) and where, is muddled. When direction is unclear, people tend to argue about tactics, and the criteria is divergent, but it will almost certainly be self-serving.  

The book, The Abilene Paradox, describes a miserable family trip to Abilene, Texas. The trip wouldn’t have happened, and the misery avoided if the family had talked about what they wanted to experience. Haven’t we all taken a trip we didn’t want to go on, eaten in a restaurant we don’t like, or sat through a soul-sucking meeting that should have been an email? The likely cause is repeating tactics that have no relation to shared strategy. 

Deadly assumptions.

We all do it, assume. If we didn’t, very little would get done. Assuming is adaptive but it is a huge trap when we use it reflexively and in all circumstances. Equally maladaptive is not assuming, questioning everything, and arguing over things that don’t matter. 

But we are not doomed to become either Naïve Nate or Prosecutorial Paula – each of whom will inevitably steer us wrong. Leaders at all levels, whether of a Girl Scout troop, a business, or a philanthropic organization, tend to be more thoughtful than reflexive; they use assumptions or interrogation on purpose. 

Most people can interrupt their reflexive preferences if they slow down briefly, to ask themselves how to think about a particular decision. It might take only a few seconds but that is long enough to interrupt our instinctive behavior. We can always decide to forge ahead with our impulses leading the way. But when it is ill-advised, we can throw a flag on our own play. 

Whether you are leading a large group, a small team, or leading yourself through a time of important decisions, these three ideas can help you make better decisions. And avoid your colleagues and friends asking, “What were you thinking?”

This guest post was authored by Constance Dierickx

Psychologist and decision scientist Constance Dierickx, PhD, created the decision-making strategies outlined in Meta-Leadership that have been implemented by leaders at the world’s top organizations including AT&T, IBM, The CDC, Lincoln Financial Group, and more.

Incorporating cutting-edge data and research on the science of thinking, emotional regulation, and behavior, Meta-Leadership offers fascinating stories and useful takeaways for better leadership and better outcomes. Dr. Dierickx is often called “The Decision Doctor®” by clients in recognition of her ability to help them with high-stakes decisions.


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