In recent posts, I’ve covered the first three cognitive conditions used in leadership development simulations to produce self-generated insights. In this post, I’ll discuss the final cognitive condition, surfacing limiting beliefs.

I once met with a Vice President of Operations for a global retail company. We discussed the value of various instruments used to surface limiting beliefs, and personality tests came up. He looked at me confidently and said, “I’m an NTFJ, Driver-Analytic, with left brain dominance.” I was impressed because I assumed that knowing his style and personality profiles would help make him an excellent manager and motivator in corporate leadership programs. Then I saw him in meetings interacting with what appeared to be an ineffective management style with his employees. As I watched his rude and ultimately inefficient behavior, it became apparent that despite his knowledge of these labels about himself, he possessed only the data points and no real awareness of himself or his relationships with others.

Labels are essentially cognitive shortcuts that make it easier for us to group, identify, and refer to things and people in conversation with others. For example, consider the image that comes to mind when you hear the words “she’s an Analytic.” You may think of an individual who is smart, slow to change, and meticulous. You may consider this a positive label, while someone else may think of similar traits and consider “Analytic” to be a negative label. You have each developed similar understandings of the characteristics associated with the labels, but different opinions of the label.

Depending on your organization and your role in it, you will jump to varying conclusions when you hear certain labels. For example, if you are an entry-level employee in a large organization and you hear “he’s an executive,” you will have a different perspective of what that means than if you are an executive there yourself.

Labels are helpful insofar as they can speed up conversations and help people make sense of situations. That is why leadership development assessment instruments and business performance analytics are so popular. People can envision a “Driver” or an “Amiable.” They understand what being an introvert or extrovert means. The labels help individuals bring meaning to things and people. In order to have effective leadership training, learners must be aware of their own label associations. This language, like biases, can stunt the growth of their mental models.

We will never do away with common organizational language—nor should we. As Peter Senge pointed out, you can’t live your life without adding meaning or drawing conclusions. It would be an inefficient, tedious way to live. It becomes a determinant when people either live up to the labels or merely write others off because they have assigned a certain label.

My favorite story that demonstrated the insufficiencies of labeling occurred in one of our leadership development simulations. The focus for training and professional development was to help participants discover the underlying dynamics that shaped their organizations so they could be effective in transforming business. I remember meeting one leader who was exceptionally intelligent. From my understanding, he rose through the ranks as a result of his thinking abilities. During the business simulation, he expressed to me that he felt he had hit a glass ceiling and was no longer effective or being considered for any promotions.

As I observed him interact with the different simulation training teams, it became apparent that he was brushing certain people off. After one of the debrief sessions, I asked what he thought of those individuals’ ideas. He looked at me in a puzzled way and said “I don’t know. I did not hear them come up with any ideas.” My observations told a different story: most of the people he ignored actually came up with the best ideas in the simulation training.

During a later discussion with him, I showed him a business simulation report that demonstrated how they did come up with many good ideas that could have significantly helped the team. Again, he looked puzzled for a moment. Then I saw the light come on and he thoughtfully said, “. . . This was a real eye-opener. I labeled each of those people on day one and have since discounted anything they had to say. I simply was not aware of this.”

Leadership development assessment tools can be extremely useful in helping to surface blind spots and strengths. However, assessments alone are not enough; what is necessary from a neurological point of view is surfacing these knowledge points in the context of real-world issues.

In the intensity of a business simulation that reflects organizational challenges, real behaviors—those hidden by years of practice—often break through. Then participants begin to internalize how their individual biases are distorting their abilities to truly hear others. This is one of the reasons why reflection underlies each of the four cognitive conditions.

When trainers set the emotional throttle appropriately, participants in leadership development simulations are able to evoke the necessary mental and emotional states for self-reflection. The goal of invoking these conditions and times of self-reflection is to help participants connect their actions to the responses of other participants, as well as to the outcomes within the simulation. Here are a few other custom learning design principles to consider when creating the condition for surfacing limiting beliefs:

More Dialogue, Less Talking

In a simulation environment, a facilitator is there to facilitate, not to teach. A facilitator’s primary role in training simulation software is to help participants make their own discoveries by asking good questions and answering their questions. This requires that facilitators must hold a unique mindset, accepting that students’ takeaways may differ from their own beliefs, but that diversity of thought is what enables individuals and organizations to become exceptional. This happens through effective dialogue.

Decision-making and problem-solving experts often ask my colleagues and me how to teach people to ask good questions—the kind of questions that expand people’s minds and make them reconsider their mental models. Good questioning leads to deeper learning. Good questioning also leads to unlearning of limiting beliefs and business transformation.

Collaborate, Don’t Just Communicate

To make sense of the world, people need to label and form beliefs and assumptions about what they hear, see, feel, smell, and taste. When people meet someone new, they tend to judge whether that person is like them or not. If the answer is yes, they may be more open to what the other person has to say. If the answer is no, then their biases may work a bit harder to confirm their newly formed beliefs and assumptions about the other person. Frankly, neither of these reactions is good.

Getting people to communicate about their feelings, issues, or differences is not enough to subdue the biases. So, what works? We have found that when people of diverse backgrounds come together in leadership development simulations around a shared problem, they somehow find common ground and unite by creating a shared vision. We call this collaboration because each person earnestly seeks to understand another’s view in an effort to solve a shared problem. Honestly, I’m not sure how and why this happens, but I’ve seen it happen time and time again in simulations. We challenge a newly formed team of culturally or educationally diverse backgrounds with a big, audacious problem. They focus, they collaborate, and they typically are giving high-fives by the end of the simulation.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

Mike Vaughan

Author Mike Vaughan

More posts by Mike Vaughan