We all like to believe that we are pretty good judges of ideas. We think we can objectively evaluate an idea based on its merits and recognize a creative solution, an innovative breakthrough, or a smart decision. When it comes to spotting the brilliant idea, we, like Potter Stewart, believe we know it when we see it.
The reality is that factors beyond our conscious awareness influence how we perceive ideas and make decisions. Social psychology has demonstrated that our perceptions are influenced by a wide array of cognitive biases. (For a great book on the neuroscience of decision-making, I recommend Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide). Due to these biases, people give disproportionate weight to certain information. In settings where decisions are subject to the persuasiveness of the speaker's argument--such as brainstorming sessions, strategy meetings, or interviews--the way in which the speaker presents the ideas conveys most of the information available to the evaluator. Due to our cognitive biases, what the speaker says is sometimes not as important as how he says it.
In Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don't, an insightful, Machiavellian analysis on navigating corporate politics, Jeffrey Pfeffer emphasizes the effect of speaking with power and confidence. He contrasts the congressional hearings of Lt. Colonel Oliver North with that of former Stanford President Donald Kennedy. Even though the allegations against North were more substantial, he fared far better than Kennedy in the court of public opinion because he projected confidence and power. (He also had immunity, which helps). North projected power by answering questions directly, taking responsibility for his actions, using straightforward, evocative language, and appealing to the higher purpose of being a good soldier fighting for his country. Kennedy, on the other hand, repeatedly apologized, used technical terminology and brought a team of accountants with him. The net effect was that he came of as embarrassed, unsure of himself, and evasive. North went on to a famous second career as a political commentator, Fox News host, and best-selling author while Kennedy was fired shortly after the hearing.
Reading Power, I couldn't help but wonder how the media circus surrounding Lebron James' decision to go to Miami might have played out differently. James was heavily criticized for the decision itself and how he chose to reveal it; however very little attention was paid to the way he said it. At Creative Realities, we teach clients to be aware of their Words, Tones, and Non-verbals so they can be careful what they are communicating. During the announcement, James averts his gaze, admits "this is very tough," says "um" several times, uses the uninspiring phrase "taking my talents to South Beach," and looks almost sheepish throughout. At the time, I considered his choice cowardly and disloyal. I believed I was making a logical, objective evaluation of the circumstances.
In reality, my reaction, along with everyone else's was probably influenced largely by picking up on the hesitation and embarrassment James himself was feeling (or at least projecting). As Pfeffer told me in an email, "the insight is this: if you are embarrassed and ashamed of something you are doing, others will certainly be, also. And as James shows discomfort with his decision, that discomfort affects the perceptions of others."
I wonder how differently I would have reacted as a basketball fan if James had looked directly into the camera and declared, "I am going to Miami to win championships."
There are three key lessons for innovators:
- Be careful what you are projecting. When you are trying to pitch an idea, keep in mind that the confidence with which you sell it is going to dramatically influence how well the idea is received.
- Be aware that the presentation of an idea clouds your perception. When someone is pitching you on an idea, try and separate the content from the performance.
- Watch your reactions. When you are listening to an idea, be careful about what your nonverbal response is communicating. This is particularly true for those in a leadership role.