Do your leaders suffer from this stupid false belief?

Beliefs are powerful. They change us from the inside out. They change our behaviors. They change companies. They change communities. They change societies.

Beliefs can be true or false. Healthy people write down their own beliefs and determine which beliefs are false and work hard on replacing them with healthy, true beliefs.

Unfortunately, I bet you, like me, see false beliefs in organizations all the time. They drive me crazy. When I come across stupid beliefs that are ingrained into a group, it makes me want to beat my head against my desk. I know; that's weird. But I do.

There is one belief that is particularly crazy. I doubt your boss would actually articulate it like this, but if s/he could, it would go something like this:

"Outside people know better."

Of course, as a blanket statement, this is plain stupid. What makes an outside person, just because s/he doesn't work in your organization, know more than you or your employees?

I know a man who works for a Fortune 500 company (or probably higher; they make billions). He says it's commonplace to attend a meeting of "leaders" and hear over and over again, "No, we can't do that." He says that the pattern is for a new executive to get hired, have several great ideas, hear "no" repeatedly, then leave the company. What do they say "yes" to? Outside people.

They recently spent over $100,000 for an in-house magazine and it was filled with errors. My friend had to fix most of it. When the editor saw it, he said, "Wow! See, they really are good." My friend didn't tell him the truth. He also told me that the other day they flew a guy in to give a 90-minute presentation on something and several slides were in the wrong order and the presentation was mediocre at best. Guess how much he was paid? Wait for it. . .$10,000. My friend could have done a much better job (for no more pay!) and he wasn't asked to...why? Because he worked there.

"Outside people know better" isn't true in general. But why in the world is this belief so pervasive?

Here are some common reasons why it's believed in so many organizations:

(1) Most leaders really don't know what their people can do. Leaders typically don't ask their employees this simple question: "What are your best skill sets and passions?" There's no inventory. There's no testing. There's no looking for great inner talent. They're simply ignorant of their people's talents.

If you're a leader at your organization, think about it: Do you really know what your people are great at? If so, how? Did they tell you? Show you?

If you don't know, why not? Why in the world are you not tapping into the resources right in front of you? They're already getting paid! Use them! "But David, I've never seen them use that skill before." That's your fault! We will do what's required of us. Ask people individually what they're really good at and what they're really passionate at and give them a chance to impress you. Stop playing victim to your own ignorance of your people.

(2) Most leaders are incompetent in that task and assume you are too. This is called "projection" in psychology. "I don't know how to do it and you work beside me (or are my subordinate), so you can't do it either." This is ridiculous. Just because you're incompetent doesn't mean I am.

(3) Many, many leaders are too proud to have you do it. This is especially true if what is needed should be done, or is related to, your leader's own job description. So, when you call in a "specialist," it means you don't look too stupid or incompetent. "This kind of thing can only be done by a specialist" is what they tell people. Admit you should be doing it, go get training, and get better. Pride always comes before the fall.

(4) Many leaders think only "outside people" can be objective. This is stupid on a few levels. First, no human being is objective. This is forced by the definition of "subjective" and "objective." All personal viewpoints are subjective by nature. Second, while people can't be objective, their ideas most certainly can be. Stop assuming people within your organization can't think straight or objectively about an issue. Just because you can't doesn't mean they can't. In fact, I bet you'd be surprised how many people in your organization could tell you very quickly "what the problem is." And several of them might even know how to fix it. How is this possible? Because most humans, outside of a traumatic exigency, can think objectively when needed.

Moreover, people within your organization can often see "real" problems because they live it in the office all the time. It takes "outside people" some time to see the real problems (really good consultants can spot them quickly). In fact, great consultants will go straight to your people and ask them these exact same questions! They will do what most leaders don't do. So, stop assuming only "outside people" have clarity and objectivity. That's plain nonsense. (Of course, after you've asked your people what the problem is or what the solution is and they stare at you like you just spoke a foreign language, then it's time to look outside the company.)

(5) Many leaders think that having an internal person address/solve the problem would take them away from their paid tasks and hurt the company. Of course that's possible. If that's true, make sure their key functions are taken care of by other means then set them free to fly. It will greatly increase their morale, save you money, and help the company in so many cases. It's likely that other workers will have greater incentive to focus on the health of the company and think of ways that they can contribute.

(6) Most leaders are simply duped by the psychological state of "the familiar." Because of the basal ganglia, our brains are wired for habits and routines. Once we get a pattern of experience, we don't want it to change. This includes how we experience other people. "Peers aren't special" is the resulting belief when we've become familiar with them. It was Jesus, who, after trying to teach to His friends and family, and do miracles to no avail because of their lack of faith, said, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown" (Mark 6:4). They simply couldn't get past the fact that they "knew Jesus when." Ever happened to you? It has to me...often. "I remember back when you used to..." whatever. They can't see you or experience you in any other way. It doesn't matter how long you've worked, how long you've been to school, how much experience you have. They "remember you when." This happens in organizations because it's what humans do. We decide, subconsciously, how we like to experience a person. And when our mind is made up, it's really, really hard to "unmake" it.

Are there times to hire an outside person? Yes, of course. Is it wise to use internal people even if they can't do the level of quality of work you want? No, of course not.

But here's the test: Have you even tried looking inward yet? To repeat:

  • Do you know your people that well? Have you offered them the opportunity at the grown-up table? 
  • Are you incompetent in that task and assume your people are too? 
  • Are you too proud to have someone else do it because it might make you look bad?
  • Do you assume only outside people can be objective?
  • Do you assume that having an internal person do the work would hurt the company?
  • Are you just used to people in one way and can't see/don't want to see them in a new role?

Come on leader. Buck up now. Release that pride or fear or ignorance. It's time to utilize all the talents your people have. Yes, it'll take a little time to get to know them (God forbid!) and some risk in seeing them perform (oh no!). But that's where you, as the great, phenomenal, forward-thinking leader that you are get to show off. I can hear you now. . .

"You know what. We almost went to an outside person. And we will for some things in the company. But, I'm really interested in tapping into the great talents of our own people. It's making me get to know them really well. And, when there's some raw talent, I'm working on training them to hone their skills. When they fail, they learn that it's safe to fail in this company which really increases their trust and loyalty. We've really seen it work here. People feel more valued and energized. It's created some work and some headaches, but that's why we're paid the big bucks."

I want to work in that kind of organization!

I bet you do too.