Have you ever looked at the decisions a leader makes and wondered “How can they be so dumb?” This is increasingly a common refrain, as the disconnect between leaders and the people they lead becomes a lens through which those people view everything the leader says and does.
This is true in business, as employee engagement remains stagnant and low while distrust of corporate leadership is significant. It is even more true in politics, where the public’s faith in Congress, the news media, the political parties, and both of their nominees for President are at historically low levels.
There are many different factors that go into this, for sure. The distortion of perspective that comes from viewing decisions made without the benefit of all the information available to the decision-makers at the top is one. Another is confirmation bias, in which people’s judgment of the results of a leader’s decision is warped by the fact that they disagreed with the leader’s decision in the first place.
But the problem of leaders making really dumb decisions can’t be swept away by simply blaming the judges. There are problems on the leaders’ side of the ledger as well, but the easy answer — “the Leader is stupid, and managed to ascend to the rank of Leader based on something other than innate intelligence” — may be emotionally satisfying for the frustrated cynic, but isn’t likely true either. It may be possible — especially in the modern political arena, in which the systemic design incentivizes Image over Ideas — but not likely in most cases.
So, what happens in those cases where smart leaders begin making objectively dumb, often short-term focused decisions? Many times, those leaders fall victim to two things working in a reinforcing tandem:
- the echo chamber of a team agreeing with itself and fearful of challenging the leader, or the consensus;
- entropy – the devolution of a closed system over time.
When the culture surrounding a Leader is one that focuses on the emotional state of the leader, people tend to self-censor their own divergent opinions. In an effort to both avoid arousing the Leader’s anger and strive to curry the Leader’s favor, people tend to bring information that enables the Leader to see what the Leader wants to see. Not only is bad news filtered away from the Leader’s view, but new ideas that challenge the current trajectory and ways of doing things also fail to reach the Leader.
Echo chambers are rarely designed intentionally; they are more likely to be the unintended consequence of choices made for other reasons. But, regardless of why it exists, once a Leader and team find themselves within an intellectual echo chamber, bad things start to happen.
Once the echo chamber is in full effect, entropy kicks in. Just as a body of water with no incoming source of fresh water becomes stagnant and unusable over time, so too a group of decision makers with no incoming source of fresh ideas experiences the same gradual slide into stagnant terribleness.
When it comes to the problem of really stupid ideas, it isn’t that leaders are dumb, per se. The truth is that everyone becomes stupid inside an echo chamber. So, instead of taking cynical comfort in deriding the leader’s intelligence when terrible decisions are made, find a way to break up the echo chamber and start infusing new information and ideas into the system. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make the Second Law of Thermodynamics work for you.