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Leading Change Requires Beginner’s Mind

by | May 11, 2021

Leaders like to be the experts with all the answers. It makes us feel important, and we think it gives us more credibility. However, the truth is that being a beginner is a much more effective strategy, especially when it comes to leading change.

From Zen Buddhism we learn a concept called “beginner’s mind.” Beginner’s mind is viewing the world and our experiences with an innocent mind devoid of preconceptions, expectations, judgments, and prejudices. Attitudinally, it is beautifully summed up by the quote from Socrates: “I would rather be proved wrong than right.”

Beginner’s mind is to explore and observe things with a deep sense of openness, much like a child explores the world with curiosity and wonder, with no fixed point of view. It is to lose our “expert’s mind,” which tends to be rigid, calcified, and fixated.

When we view the world through expert’s mind, we think we know all the answers, and are therefore closed to new possibilities. Expert’s mind is therefore a primary hindrance to leading change—how can we lead change if we’re not open to change ourselves?

Two Biases that Make Leading Change Difficult

Under the influence of expert’s mind we fall prey to two common cognitive biases: confirmation bias and sunk cost bias.

We’ve all heard of confirmation bias: the tendency to search for or interpret information that confirms our beliefs or hypotheses.

We typically approach something with a preconceived notion, or a fiercely held belief. Then, we proceed to search only for evidence that confirms those preconceptions and validates our beliefs. If we find anything that appears to contradict our “truth,” we perform mental acrobatics to explain how the new information is false or irrelevant.

Leading change requires that we be open to new ideas, and confirmation bias makes anything new immediately suspect to us.

Sunk cost bias is something all business leaders are all too familiar with: irrationally persisting with bad decisions, due to irrecoverable investments already made. We cling to our original decisions in an effort to avoid the intense discomfort and vulnerability associated with admitting our plans or decisions did not and are not working; we fear admitting that there are losses that cannot be recovered. We persist in an effort to prove ourselves right in spite of all the evidence.

Both of these biases show the expert’s mind in action and hinder our efforts in leading change. The expert’s mind appears to be secure in its knowledge, but is actually deeply insecure. The desperate way it clings to its perceptions and conclusions is evidence of its fear of being wrong. It holds on tightly to its beliefs and “knowledge” because in an unstable world, that’s what gives it the illusion of stability.

As a leader devoted to leading change, how can you avoid these two costly biases and the pitfalls of the expert’s mind? Research shows that mindfulness is the answer.

Mindfulness: The Antidote to Expert’s Mind

Andrew Hafenbrack and a team of researchers examined the impact of mindfulness meditation on sunk cost bias. Hafenbrack and his team staged three different experiments in which some groups were encouraged to let their minds wander before being asked to make a decision designed to evoke the sunk cost bias. Others were guided through a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session prior to being presented with the same decisions. After only 15 minutes of meditation the mindful group was significantly less likely to be influenced by the sunk cost bias.1

Our wandering minds, Hafenbrack and his team concluded, lead us to dwell too much on the past and the future, thereby providing fuel for the sunk cost bias paradigm. Focusing more on the present reduces the effects of the bias.

In another study, researchers examined how mindfulness aids our decision-making processes. They discovered that, among other benefits, mindfulness may

“reduce confirmation bias and overconfidence, allow decision makers to better differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information, reduce reliance on stereotypes, help appreciate uncertainty and productively deal with it, and reduce illusory pattern detection…

“Mindfulness is likely to facilitate resolving trade-offs and help effectively reconcile intuition with analysis, thereby reducing procrastination.”

They concluded that “mindful decision makers are more likely to learn to make better decisions over time because they are more open to feedback and less prone to misinterpret it by making self-serving attributions.”2

In short, mindfulness releases the grip of our expert’s mind and its accompanying biases in order to operate from the openness and flexibility of beginner’s mind. Leading change is only possible in this state.

The Brain Science of Beginner’s Mind

Whereas the expert’s mind is a default state, beginner’s mind is fostered through mindful meditation. In contrast to the expert’s mind, beginner’s mind does not position itself as all-knowing. In fact, it uniquely prepares the brain for greater flexibility and learning, in short, for an innovative mindset, which is required for leading change.

For the past few centuries, the accepted paradigm in the scientific community has been that the brain is essentially fixed, hardwired, unchangeable. As the Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal wrote, “In the adult centres the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable.”

However, cutting-edge neuroscience is proving that our brains maintain the ability to rewire and change throughout our lives. Scientists have dubbed this ability “neuroplasticity.”

Sharon Begley explains in her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain,

“The brain can indeed be rewired. The adult brain…retains much of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine and dream.”

Not surprisingly, one of the best tools scientists have used to stimulate neuroplasticity is mindfulness meditation. Beginner’s mind, as cultivated through mindfulness, can do more than simply help us see more clearly and make better decisions, it can literally rewire our brains, allowing for true innovation in leading change.

Taken together these findings provide concrete evidence that mindful meditation training leads not only to subjective improvements in wellbeing, but to changes in the brain at the cellular, structural and functional levels.

Mindful meditation is much more than a placebo effect. Meditation practice causes neuroplastic changes in the brain, leading to improvements in depressive symptoms, feelings of happiness and executive function.

Being Right versus Leading Change

The challenge is that, on one hand, lip service is paid to innovative thinking, but on the other hand, leaders feel extreme pressure to “get it right.” This makes them scared to try new things. Or, if they do try new things and fail, they easily fall into the blame game to take the pressure off themselves. Both approaches are antithetical to the beginner’s mind, and to leading change.

In a famous article, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” business theorist Chris Argyris, of Harvard Business School, explained why the smartest, most talented leaders are often those who are the least open to failure and capable of learning from failure.

People profess to be open to learning, he explained, but their actions betray very different values, including:

  • the desire to remain in unilateral control
  • the goal of maximising ‘winning’ while minimising ‘losing’
  • the belief that negative feelings should be suppressed
  • the desire to appear as rational as possible.

Argyris wrote,

“Taken together, these values betray a profoundly defensive posture: a need to avoid embarrassment, threat, or feelings of vulnerability and incompetence.

“This closed-loop reasoning explains why the mere encouragement of open inquiry can be intimidating to some. And it’s especially relevant to the behavior of many of the most highly skilled and best-trained employees.

“Behind their high aspirations are an equally high fear of failure and a tendency to be ashamed when they don’t live up to their high standards. Consequently, they become brittle and despondent in situations in which they don’t excel immediately.”

Leading Change with Compassionate Accountability

Mindful leaders can stop the blame game by creating a culture of compassionate accountability. Compassionate accountability isn’t about finding someone or some factor to blame.

It’s simply about objectively analysing a situation with beginner’s mind to learn from it. It’s finding where team members may have contributed to a failure, but doing so compassionately, with an attitude of “What can we learn from this?” rather than “See what you did wrong?”

To maintain the status quo as an organisation in the modern world is to decline and die. Successful organisations are those that can continually flex, learn and adjust, and do so nimbly and quickly. The ability to learn quickly has become more important than capital, market share or almost any other factor. Leading change and creating a culture of perpetual innovation is far more important than any business strategy you could devise. And the culture is determined by the behaviour and mindset of the leaders.

This means leaders must be in touch with the ever-changing flow of life. They must learn to pay attention, to connect the dots and recognise patterns before others do. They must be equipped with the right tools for dealing not only with uncertainty itself, but also with their own mindset and fears in relation to uncertainty. The discipline of ‘beginner’s
mind’, as taught and cultivated by mindfulness, provides the key to leading change, both in ourselves and our organisations.

The new frontiers that await humanity lie beyond the reach of expert’s mind and on the edges of beginner’s mind. The attitude cultivated by the greatest leaders is expressed by Nikkyo Niwano, who, after a lifetime of mindfulness practice, said, “I am beginning today. I am a lifetime beginner.”

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