Principles of Objectivity: Changing Mindsets for Greater Effectiveness

12/19/2012 11:59 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2013

Have you ever over-reacted to a situation, taken something personally when it was not really meant that way, misinterpreted the tone of an email or responded based on a perception that had little to do with what was actually going on? Of course, we all have. We are all subjective about the way we respond to people, circumstances, and events in our lives. It is the nature of the mind. We are constantly appraising our environment, and we often get it wrong. These cognitive errors are common by avoidable. This is what we do: We experience through our senses, an object, a person, a situation, or an event. In an instant, we project our own mental models, i.e. the lens through which we frame our world, onto that object, person, situation, or event. Often, the result is that we judge and respond to things incorrectly. Sometimes this lack of objectivity can be incredibly expensive. For me it cost one million dollars!

Losing a million dollars taught me that being happy, effective and successful requires greater objectivity, which could be simply defined as seeing things as they are. Objectivity is recognizing and accepting 'what is', and responding thoughtfully, deliberately and effectively to the opportunities and challenges of our lives. To do this, however, we first have to understand our mental models. Mental models are deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world works, and how things ought to be. The mind forms patterns or models that define for us our sense of reality. These models explain cause and effect to us and lead us to expect certain results, give meanings to events, and pre-dispose us to behave in certain ways. We think and act through our mental models. What we fundamentally believe about ourselves, what we believe is true about the world, and what we have decided is important to us help determine what our experiences will be. Objectivity is the ability to question our mental models, the underlying assumptions we make when judging situations, making decisions and taking action. Objectivity is the ability to identify and transform limiting and unproductive mental models that impair our ability to effectively evaluate and respond to our daily challenges. The brain's neuroplasticity, its capacity to change in response to new information, allows us to reframe our view of the world and ourselves, and to develop new ways of thinking and acting that help us deal with the complex issues we face each day.

The first step in being objective is to value and accept who we are. Just as we over-react to situations, misinterpret text messages, and judge others instantly and often unfairly, we make the same cognitive errors when it comes to judging ourselves. How you frame your world begins with how you think and feel about yourself. For several years now, I have been teaching a course called Principles of Objectivity, Changing Mindsets for Greater Effectiveness to graduate students at Babson College and to corporations through Babson Executive Education. One of the most powerful, pervasive, and often hidden mental models I have found in people of all ages, walks of life, and career status, from presidents of corporations to high school interns, is that "I believe, deep down, that I am not quite good enough, I am limited in some way, I am not 100 percent acceptable to myself, I can be better." It is fascinating to see how readily and openly people admit this. This appears to be a fundamental mental model for many of us, and it underlies much of our negative spiral of thinking, the often harsh voice of judgment that many of us experience. This becomes the basis for our self-concept which then drives our need for external validation. How often are you beating yourself up each day? How often are you worrying about what others may be thinking about you? We can be very hard on ourselves!

Our self-concept is often based on what we think others think about us and what we think they expect from us. This external validation can become the basis for what we choose to do in our lives and how we value ourselves. We want to be seen by others in a certain way, and we painstakingly try to manage that perception. This makes us vulnerable, insecure, fearful, and prone to over-reaction and mindless responses. In one of my classes, a very astute 30-something male shared that it was difficult for him to admit to himself how much his happiness was dependent on other people's perceptions of him. In fact, however, the same people from whom he was seeking validation were also seeking validation from him!

Having experienced a significant failure in business, learning how to value and accept myself was a lifesaver for me. I was able to develop a line of reasoning, a new way to frame my world, a new mental model that became the foundation for a new self-concept that is less dependent on external validation.

If one is objective and looks at things as they are, it becomes clear that everything is given, interconnected and interrelated, governed by certain universal laws and principles. It all works together, everything having a purpose and connected to everything else. We did not choose any of it, nor do we have control over much of it. The earth revolves, the sun generates energy, changes in ocean temperature in one part of the world affect weather patterns in other parts of the world, and so on. The key is to realize that the same interconnectedness applies to you as well. You did not choose your gender, your race, your parents or their socio-economic status, your siblings, or where you were born. You also didn't choose what you love or what you are good at. It was all given, just like the phenomena of the natural world: the sun, the moon, gravity, and photosynthesis. We are all interconnected and interrelated with everyone and everything else and each of us has been given unique gifts, talents, interests and potential to express in the world.

Even our circumstances, successes and failures, pain and loss continue to shape who we are, helping us grow into our fullest potential. For example, if I hadn't lost a million dollars I wouldn't be the happiest I have ever been now, teaching and writing about objectivity. Our power comes from being who we are, leveraging all that we have been given, not projecting a false image that we think others want and expect. Instead of comparing ourselves with others and not feeling good enough, we can increase our objectivity by valuing and accepting ourselves based on our one-of-a-kind combination of core strengths, gifts and experiences. We can shift from a mental model that says, "I will always be undermined at work, and therefore I can't be successful" to one that says, "I am a unique individual, connected to everything, with given talents and abilities that I will use to be successful and make a difference in the world." Over time, when we choose the latter, our thoughts and actions will support that mental model, and we will begin to create new possibilities and live happier, more successful lives. Increasing our objectivity is the key! Sam Aquillano, a successful entrepreneur, sums it up this way:

The Principles of Objectivity helped me see that you can't manage/lead effectively until you understand your self-concept and the mental-models that have shaped the way you are. Once you are in touch with what makes you-you, and what makes you-successful, it frees you up to be a better leader and to help others achieve their full potential.

Excerpt from book in process entitled Value of Objectivity