Most of the time, we don’t question what we believe. We’re pretty sure what we believe is “true” – and that’s why we believe it! But what if your beliefs are based on your interpretation of reality, not facts? Most beliefs are just thoughts we don’t question. Negative thoughts create negative beliefs. Once you learn how beliefs are created you can create beliefs that work for you. This means you decide on purpose what to believe.
How do we create beliefs?
We create beliefs with our thoughts. The thoughts we repeat over and over again become beliefs that we think are true. Like, “I’m not a good public speaker” or “To make money in business you have to work all the time.” We don’t believe these thoughts because they are facts. We believe them simply because we have repeated them so often that we have created neural pathways for them in our brain. These pathways are shortcuts our brain uses to filter and select data from the world around us. We call these shortcuts beliefs, but our brain interprets these pathways as facts. In other words, our brain will look for evidence to support what we believe, which over time reinforces our beliefs, and this is called “confirmation bias.”
You can make this work for you in the business world. What you believe drives how you feel and act, and that directly affects your results. You can decide to believe anything you want. Oprah was born into poverty in rural Mississippi, and there was no reason to think she would evolve into a billionaire philanthropist, but she believed she could make a difference – and she certainly has. Elon Musk believed he could build electric cars in the US, even when there was no evidence that he would succeed. He believed it anyway, his belief fueled his actions and we can all see the results.
Our brains distort, delete and generalize.
We’re exposed to so much sensory input every day (what we see, hear, touch, etc.) that the only way our brain can cope is by deleting most of it from our conscious awareness. The amount of external stimulation is like a firehose, which our brain automatically filters down to a trickle, using our beliefs as a filter. We may think that the way we interpret the world is “logical,” but it’s based on our experience and our interpretations.
Because everyone has different experiences and interpretations, no two models of the world are the same. In our business, if we believe our employees don’t do things right, that’s what our brain will notice and reinforce. On the other hand, our employees may believe that we micromanage them, and that’s what the evidence their brain selects to notice.
Chris Argyris was a professor at Harvard Business School when she developed her “ladder of inference” description of how we reach conclusions and make decisions. I created a simple chart below to show how the ladder of inference maps to the thought model I use in coaching.
Have you ever been frustrated with an employee who makes a wrong decision? Most of the time, when they make a bad decision, the employee doesn’t realize that’s what they are doing. They notice something (they select data), give it meaning (they interpret it), compare it to other experiences (they generalize it), and decide what to do (draw a conclusion). Much of this happens subconsciously.
At any step along the way, the chances are very high that something in their decision-making process will be very different from how you, as a business owner would see it. This used to happen to me all the time. During my early years, I used to be frustrated because I would think the right conclusion was so obvious that it was hard for me to understand how anyone could see it differently. But now I know that because of their beliefs, the data they select to notice in the first place will often be different from mine.
Each of us shape reality differently and we are often unaware of what we have deleted, distorted or generalized and we miss an entire array of data that makes up other people’s reality. When we disagree, we think we are right and the other person is wrong, but most of the time they are simply selecting different data to notice. Understanding this will make you a better business leader.
What about hiring new employees – why do so many of us seem to make poor hiring decisions? Say we are looking to hire a manager and we believe the three most important criteria are experience, education, and salary requirements. Our brain is specifically filtering for these and during an interview will delete or distort other factors which could be even more important. We may overlook aspects that might not be ideal, such as the fact that they have a business of their own on the side and their attention will be divided. We distort that fact during the interview because we are not selecting it to notice. It’s only months later when the manager’s side business starts to interfere with their performance, resulting in missed deadlines that we realize that we overlooked the red flag.
How to uncover your beliefs before making decisions:
Ask yourself these questions when making a decision or reconciling different opinions. These are the same questions I ask myself when I am training other people to take over some of my responsibilities.
- What am I noticing?
- If I look carefully, what might I not be seeing?
- What am I making this mean?
- What else could this mean?
- When have I seen this before and what was the outcome?
- What is different about this circumstance from similar ones I have seen?
- Why am I reaching this conclusion?
- What if the opposite were true?
- Who else can offer me an opinion?
By training yourself to ask questions you can bring into the open the reasons you and others think and decide the way you do. This is a great strategy with your employees and clients. Different opinions will be because of differences in data selection, interpretation, assumptions or conclusions and using these questions you can uncover beliefs that could be subconsciously driving decision making.
Repeated thoughts form beliefs.
These beliefs influence what data we select to notice. Then the data we select in turn reinforces what we already believe. In other words, we see what we look for. And the more we see it, the stronger the neural pathway in our brains become. We always look for evidence to support what we believe because it’s more efficient for our brain. But just because we believe something doesn’t mean it is a fact and it doesn’t mean that it serves us. Don’t believe everything you think. Question your beliefs and decide on purpose the thoughts you want to think, which will create your beliefs and fuel the action that leads to results.