What does a Korean War fighter pilot have to do with today’s strategic challenges confronting law firm leaders?
If you think about today’s law practice environment, law firms today are in an aerial dogfight much of the time. Leaders need to become adept at observing — seeing reality in an accurate, sober and undistorted way — and orienting, i.e., drawing implications and evolving a strategy. We’re not talking here about a single, five-year strategy, but a dynamically changing, ongoing, series of responses to dramatically changing market conditions.
Colonel John Boyd revolutionized the way fighter pilots were trained to engage the enemy in dogfights by inventing a theory about how to make decisions under conditions of rapid, constant change. The heart of his theory was a concept he called the OODA Loop — the acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide & Act. It’s still taught by the US Air Force today.
The central idea of the OODA Loop is that sometimes slowing down can actually make us faster and more effective. The Orient phase is actually the most important, for it’s in this micro-moment that we take what we’ve observed and place it into the context of everything else we know, drawing implications and evolving a strategy as we do so.
The challenge for lawyers and law firm leaders is that we, more than most other kinds of folks, are prone to cognitive distortions that particularly cripple our ability to accurately Orient.
Everybody has cognitive biases — systematic errors in thinking that distort our perceptions and judgments. These biases can warp our perceptions and our thinking and then fool us into believing that we weren’t biased at all.
The two most common such biases that can dramatically distort the Orienting process are: i) the Confirmation Bias; and ii) the Negativity Bias.
The Confirmation Bias
According to social psychologist Scott Plous at Wesleyan University, the Confirmation Bias is “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” As an example, if you are supporting a certain political candidate in a campaign, you are more likely to notice, believe, and remember favorable stories in the press about your candidate, and either overlook or disbelieve favorable stories about the opposing candidate. And, you are likely to believe that you’re being objective all the while.
If you’re a leader in a law firm and you’re considering the wisdom of, say, a merger with another firm, if you have a strong feeling pro or con, you may easily end up overlooking information that conflicts with your preferred outcome — and at the same time, convince yourself that you’re being fair and objective.
The Negativity Bias
The Negativity Bias is equally powerful. I’ve blogged about the fact that the training we receive as lawyers teaches us to think negatively. A good lawyer is trained to spot problems and to avoid risks. But this superb training comes with a side effect — we actually train our brains to get better at noticing negatives, and we atrophy its capacity to notice the positive. That means that when you are Orienting during a decision-making process, you are likely to have a bias towards the negative. Human beings in general pay more attention to threats, problems, and negative aspects than they do to opportunities, rewards, and the positive — but we lawyers add a layer of “negativity mindset” on top of this existing predisposition. And, like all cognitive biases, we are likely to convince ourselves that we are being objective.
Lawyer negativity can make us more risk-averse than business common sense would warrant. Also, negative cognition leads to negative emotions, and negative emotions can lead to a narrowing of our perceptions. As a result, we may actually miss details and nuances that we might have otherwise seen had we been in a more positive mood.
The training we receive as lawyers can actually magnify some of our inherent biases. While this may help us be more skilled and effective at practicing law, the very same mechanism can interfere with our ability to be effective leaders. This is especially likely to affect our objectivity in the Orient stage of the OODA Loop.
The job of a leader is to guide others into the unknown. Since we never have perfect information about that unknown, we are always in a position of entreating our constituents to trust us and follow us anyway. In short, effective leadership requires copious amounts of trustworthiness. A legalistic mindset generates the precise opposite.
What’s the antidote? Just reading this article won’t help you at all — mere awareness that you may conceivably have a blind spot is rarely sufficient to overcome your actual blindness.
Rather, the most important first step is to increase your own self-awareness.
If you haven’t ever taken a professional-grade personality test like the Caliper Profile, the Hogan Assessment, or something comparable, you owe it to yourself and those you lead to do so. The feedback can be really enlightening. The only way you can manage a trait is to first understand your own trait structure. Any psychologist can help you learn simple strategies for managing a trait — after all, traits are just tendencies and are not set in stone. Managing a personality trait boils down to being willing to experience a short moment of psychological discomfort in the service of a happy ending to the moment.
Another strategy is to find a “devil’s advocate” — someone you trust whom you can empower to tell you the truth, to challenge you when you need to be challenged. Then commit to listening to that person when you’re in the thick of the decision-making process. This applies with equal force to those moments when you are channeling your inner skeptic.
If you take these two simple suggestions to heart, and actually try them out several times over the next few weeks, you may actually succeed in forging new neural pathways that result in your becoming — like the fighter pilots that Col. Boyd trained — the “ace” among leaders in your firm.