On Friday, May 27, jurors in the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial heard closing arguments. And if you’re anything like me, you could not have cared less. But in the inescapable coverage of this trial, I was struck by one thing that was miles from the headlines. If you happened to be listening, a simple instruction given to the jurors by Judge Azcarate contained a powerful lesson that can help us put aside our egos and make better decisions.
Before sending them off to the jury room, Judge Azcarate warned the jurors that it would be unhelpful for any of them to “make an emphatic expression of his or her opinion in the case or to announce a determination to stand for a certain verdict.” She went on to say that, “To do so before all jurors have had an opportunity to consult with one another and exchange views and opinions might allow your sense of pride to prevent you from retreating from an announced position even when shown that such a position is unsound.”
We all know that keeping an open mind is important; Azcarate’s advice highlights how easily we sabotage our own efforts to do so if we’re not careful. Changing our own minds is hard, even more so after we’ve publicly declared our stance on an issue. Psychologists have studied this phenomenon. The so-called “commitment and consistency bias” describes the fact that once we have declared a position or taken an action, that we will feel a sense of pressure, both external and internal, to continue behaving in ways that are consistent with our previous actions. Often, we’ll do this in spite of evidence that our previous position was mistaken.
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This bias is a real problem, especially for leaders and managers who, to steal a line from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, need to be “right, a lot.” Interestingly, when asked to elaborate on the importance of being right, Bezos has noted that people who are often right also change their minds often. According to Bezos, the smartest people are continually revising their understanding of the world around them. Being right and being consistent are often incompatible.
This ethos is summed up neatly in a quip coined by Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo, who urges us to have “strong opinions loosely held.” This isn’t bad advice, but it does feel incomplete. The problem is that many leaders interpret the “strong opinion” part as permission to be outspoken — bombastic even — in their beliefs on a given topic. This may work sometimes — when, for example, a sufficient level of psychological safety exists on the team. Often, however, especially when a large power differential exists in the group, such strongly stated opinions mean that important contradictory arguments will never surface. Team members either assume the leader knows best or they simply fear sticking their neck out. More pernicious still is the consistency bias looming in the background. Even if the outspoken leader is challenged on their stance, he is now forced to swim upstream against the strong subconscious currents pushing him to remain consistent with his previous position.
Having a strong opinion is fine. Holding it loosely is better. But the advice begs the question — how might we go about loosening our grip on our own opinions? How can we best avoid sacrificing good choices at the altar of consistency?
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To hold our opinions loosely, we should follow Judge Azcarate’s advice and state them more reticently. Like good jurors, we should avoid making definitive statements early in deliberations. A simple change in the way we word things can help. Next time you need to make a decision with your team, avoid the urge to firmly stake out your position early in the conversation. Instead, try saying something like, “My instincts are pushing me toward X, but I am open to changing my mind and want to hear what others think.” You will find that your teammates will more readily offer their opinions. But, even more importantly, you’ll send a strong signal to your ego to stand down. Keeping our sense of personal pride on the sidelines is a simple and powerful way to ensure we make better decisions.