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Opportunities Lost through “Second Guessing”

December 11, 2012

“Second-guessing our people is a management habit that costs our economy $billions per year.” 

second guessingA recent family event brought into focus the tremendous demotivational effect of second-guessing. The family member concerned shouldn’t be blamed in any way because it’s a habit passed down from generation to generation. Having observed prior family generations, they were even more severe second-guessers.

Those prior generations had their second-guessing habits strongly reinforced in their workplace, where the cult of  management since the Great Depression, at least, was to scrutinize and supervise everything that was going on. For prior generations, the consequences could be dire if the second-guessing revealed worker negligence.

We still haven’t thrown off this form of management thinking and it’s costing organizations a fortune.

Just imagine yourself completing an important organizational task. You do it to the best of your ability and everything seems to be working just fine. But your supervisor arrives while you are taking care of something else and reorganizes your prior assignment without consulting you. It is highly likely you would feel indignant, disempowered, frustrated and lots more.

Financial-Executive-RiskWhat’s more: it’s more than likely your supervisor will discuss his reasons for changing things sometime later and why you missed the mark; or bring it up at your next performance appraisal. Not only would you feel miserable, but you would feel humiliated and childlike. Moreover, you may well vow not to take any new initiatives and defer to your supervisor before making any future moves.

Having taken that hidden vow, it’s likely your supervisor will scold you at a future performance review for not taking sufficient initiative; without the slightest inkling of what caused your changed behavior in the first place. Does this sound familiar?

Most self-respecting people hate to be second-guessed and yet we’re all guilty of it: it’s a societal habit. And yet, if organizations are sincere in their intent to encourage empowerment and therefore benefit from real gains in personal initiative, then they have to break the habit of second-guessing their people.

But like alcoholics, we have to recognize our second-guessing issue in the first place. Are we chronic second-guessers, regular second-guessers, or infrequent ones? An honest answer on this one will go a long way toward determining how empowered our workforce, team members or family members feel about our leadership or parental style. There’s no doubt that if we can minimize our second-guessing, we will move ourselves closer to the remarkable leader column.

Once we’ve come to terms with our level of addiction to second-guessing, then we can recognize some of the different types of this disenfranchising habit and focus on  changes.

These include:

  • Redo others efforts – This reflects our earlier example: intruding, either announced or unannounced, to redo what a team member has already done. Instead, remarkable leaders would ask: “What’s working particularly well with what you’ve just done?” If the team member responds with a positive and confident explanation, then that leader compliments and encourages them. This will encourage that person to take more similar initiatives.
  • Question someone’s conclusions Where a team member has already proposed a solution, you respond with: “I have a better idea.” The remarkable leader, on the other hand, is more likely to ask: “What do you see as the particular advantages in your approach?” Again, if the person retorts with some strong positives, this leader will compliment their thinking and encourage them to proceed. The person’s confidence climbs and their respect for their leader grows.
  • Significantly revise or edit someone’s document By doing this, the author will hardly write another document without heavy input from their team leader. A remarkable leader takes a different tack: “I really found your paper interesting. If you’re ever open to additional input, I will certainly be happy to contribute.” Such open invitations will encourage  authors to seek input, not only this time, but at other times, too.

Other forms of second-guessing include: questioning how someone played their game; nitpicking an already acceptable job done; reordering a project when 80% success will do; and so on. Let’s face it, second-guessing, beyond being a cultural habit, is also a means of asserting control over others and showing we are perfectionists.

Let’s all declare that, if we could suppress our second guessing habit: the ingenuity, productivity and initiative level around us would simply multiply. Across the US that will be worth $billions over the next year.

____________________

Peter Arthur SmithPeter Arthur-Smith is the Founding Principal of Leadership Solutions, Inc®, New York, which offers groundbreaking organizational tools and practices that can position executives to become Remarkable Leaders. He has recently authored the book- “Smart Decisions: Goodbye Problems, Hello Options” – and is writing another, “Catching the Next Wave: Becoming Remarkable Leaders.”   You may contact Peter at 212-332-8907 or by e-mail at peter@ileadershipsolutions.com.

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