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The Dirty Dozen

1_Yeargin_Bill Head shot 12

Many years ago, living in my college dorm, I began reading books that helped me understand how thinking affects success. I learned that people who are really smart often limit themselves by how they view their circumstances. Others who are not as smart can excel because of the paradigms they choose. As a guy who has never considered himself to be particularly smart, this notion appealed to me.

Now, nearly four decades later, I have seen the premise corroborated again and again: How we think drives our success. And on the flip side, I have seen 12 things people do that sabotage them and limit their success.


Here are the 12 ways of thinking to avoid if you want to be successful.

1. Being a Knower

We all are limited by our experiences and are easily self-deceived. Most people believe they are in the top 50 percent of drivers; while I am no math whiz, even I realize that is not possible. Until we are willing to humble ourselves and realize there is a lot we don’t know, we limit ourselves. The antidote to being a knower is being a learner. This happens when we view every situation not as an opportunity to prove ourselves right, but as an opportunity to learn.

2. Status Quo Bias

Many people say they don’t mind change, but what they mean is they don’t mind change that they initiate. One of the reasons change is so challenging is because it takes energy. It is hard. Often, it is easier to think of big change than incremental change. Thinking of big change doesn’t require extra effort; it requires different thinking and often gets spectacular results.

3. Confirmation Bias

Very few people seek truth. Instead, most want validation. Confirmation bias can be seen in all areas of our lives as we look at any set of facts and see them through our own worldview. This can make leaders particularly susceptible to people on their team who just want to make the boss happy.

4. Herd Behavior

Lots of scientific studies have shown that most people are easily persuaded by whatever the crowd is thinking. This tendency, combined with common information effect — which is when teams focus mostly on areas where they agree — can be dangerous for decision-makers. We need to consider contrarian views.

5. Sunk Cost Bias

If you buy tickets for a movie but then a friend invites you to a party, you might struggle with what to do. If you choose the less-fun movie because you already bought the tickets, you are a victim of sunk cost bias. This happens to us as leaders when we keep investing in something from which we can’t cut loose because we are already in so deep. Learn to let it go.

6. Framing

How we choose to view our circumstances has a significant effect on how we react to those circumstances. Meat that is labeled “90 percent lean” sells better than the same meat labeled “only 10 percent fat.” If we can make a point of seeing not just the challenges in a situation but also the opportunities, it can be life-changing. (Related: Be careful not to let people anchor you. This happens when a salesperson gets you thinking about a high price early, so any deal below that seems good. Also, the decoy effect results in us getting distracted by something that is not significant to the decision being made. The best persuaders are good at framing your perspective, which can result in a less-than-optimal decision.)

7. Endowment Effect and Loss Aversion

The science of behavioral economics has taught us that we tend to overvalue what we own and that losing something is much more painful than gaining something of equal value. Combining these two incorrect views can result in an inflated fear of loss. Often, our fears are based on emotion, so it is always important to separate fear from facts.

8. Swirling

Swirling is when we can’t decide, so we either keep asking for more information or get captured by random data points. It’s rare to get certainty in decision-making; our decisions are almost always based on probabilities. We should do our best to understand that even 90 percent probability will go the other way one out of 10 times. Don’t let a need for certainty cause your organization to swirl.

9. Drawing False Meaning

This is often called representativeness, which is creating false meaning out of random events. Just because someone gets one decision right, even an important one, does not mean he is an expert. There are a lot of ways we can draw incorrect conclusions from random events, so we must be aware of this trap. Similarly, be careful when taking advice from a “one-hit wonder.”

10. Thinking Short-Term

One of the smartest tactics a leader can use is to play the long game. Often, this requires the discipline of setting aside emotions of the moment. I can share from personal experience that doing so pays huge dividends.

11. Focusing on Activity

Most leaders fall into the trap of believing they are productive because they are busy. There is little correlation between busyness and results. When a leader can shift her paradigm from valuing busyness to focusing on results, it is often transformative.

12. Commercial Pilot Mode

Some leaders are like commercial pilots. Under normal circumstances, they will safely get the organization where it needs to go, and everyone will be happy. However, we don’t always operate under normal circumstances. Sometimes we are in crisis or seemingly at war. In those cases, an organization needs a fighter pilot who operates under a totally different mindset. Again and again, I have seen great commercial-pilot leaders fail to turn on the fighter-pilot mentality when needed, costing them and their organizations dearly.

Related to this dirty dozen is a lesson Stephen Covey taught in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: We need to focus on what we can control and ignore what we cannot.

During my nearly 40-year career, I have continually observed that a person’s thinking is the No. 1 factor that holds him back. The good news is that by adjusting your thinking to avoid the 12 missteps here, any leader will go a long way to thinking for success, which will make his organization better and help him achieve his true potential.

Bill Yeargin is CEO of Correct Craft and the author of Education of a CEO.


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