What a Missing Plane Reveals About Leadership & Innovation

One of the biggest mysteries in South-East Asian news right now is missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. It’s been almost 7 days since the plane disappeared from radar screens and the prevailing belief is that it crash landed in the ocean. As dozens of countries lend their expertise and technology to locate the missing plane, speculation and conspiracy theories are being flung across the Internet.

All the speculative hoopla got me thinking about how this relates to my work. I spend my days consulting with or coaching business leaders and entrepreneurs. After we address the main challenge that led them to hire me (on anything from communication issues to time management), the conversation inevitably shifts to their default leadership beliefs and patterns. Because I typically work with leaders in creative or high-stakes settings, their daily reality involves dealing with ambiguous & multi-faceted problems. And I see my fair share of leaders forming their own theories about why something unusual has happened in their lives or companies.

Why does the public come up with a ton of theories before the facts unfold about Flight MH370, and why do so many leaders similarly formulate theories to explain the mysteries that show up for them?

We’re Wired to Find the Answer….Any Answer…As Fast As Possible

Our brains are wired to solve problems. And our psychology demands it. It’s our subconscious way of restoring peace to our inner world as quickly as possible so that we can get back to our normal & predictable routine. Biologically, this is the most efficient solution our body uses because going ‘back to normal’ helps to conserve our energy and resources.

Ever heard of cognitive dissonance?

According to Wikipedia:

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. The theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals largely become psychologically distressed.

So…when a plane goes missing and there’s no immediate reason to satisfy our ‘why’, our brain grasps for anything that can explain it away, no matter how bizarre our reason might seem to the next person. Our psyche is not always going for elegant logic here…it merely wants to reduce the cognitive dissonance so that we can get on with our lives.

The same process occurs when we lead our teams and businesses. The less comfortable we are with cognitive dissonance, the more quickly we will want to find a reason, any reason, that explains the challenge we’re dealing with. Here are a few work-related examples you may resonate with:

1) Your company’s newly-hired CEO outlines a vision that will take things in a direction you’re uncomfortable with, or that will interrupt the way you’re used to doing things. You tell yourself that the new CEO is crazy (this is your version of a ‘conspiracy theory’), you decide to dig in your heels and resist the change.

2) You are the CEO who created and outlined the vision. When you share your vision for the first time at a company-wide meeting, you sense and see intense resistance all around you. You’re not used to dealing with this level of resistance, because most of your previous work roles went smoothly and people embraced your ideas from day one. Internally, your ‘cognitive dissonance meter’ wants you to find a reason as quickly as possible. You decide that this new company is filled with stick-in-the-mud coworkers, and this perception influences the way you interact with them going forward.

Cognitive dissonance is your innovative friend

Innovation is an area of life and workplace leadership that requires you to go against your natural biological instincts. Think about it. Innovation is all about dealing with uncertainty, from not knowing if people will actually get what you’re trying to create, to managing diverse work teams with strong and often equally valid perspectives. Without cognitive dissonance, you would not be able to appreciate the different options on the decision-making table. You would end up choosing the ‘safe’ solution, which is usually the status quo solution because it has a reassuring track record.

When you understand and embrace cognitive dissonance, you learn how to (temporarily) silence that biological yearning to stay safe and find a quick answer. You master the art of holding two or more contradictory ideas for a long time…for as long as it takes to birth a different and, yes, innovative solution.

Locating Flight MH370, for instance, is calling for innovative problem-solving and a mastery of cognitive dissonance. Instead of jumping to preliminary conclusions based on sketchy or unverified information, the authorities in question appear to be holding two or more contradictory possibilities until a clearer picture forms. This is no small feat, especially amidst the glare of international media outlets and in the face of devastated relatives of the missing passengers and flight crew. It takes fortitude and emotional resilience to stay focused on investigative and communication efforts amidst the unprecedented elements of this tragedy. There will be the naysayers and critics who will complain about how the respective agencies are ‘keeping things from the public’. Giving the agencies the benefit of the doubt (at least for now), I say that learning how to deal with our own cognitive dissonance will make this and other mysteries of life a little easier to bear.

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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a global leadership veteran, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 job transitions. She is a peaceful leadership advocate and mentor, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

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