5 Brain Biases that Limit Leaders

Leaders would like to think that they lead in unbiased ways. However that’s easier said than done. The fall of man affected every part of who we are, including our thinking. Brain biases abound. A Google search reveals almost 200 different biases. Among those 200, what brain biases poses the greatest threat to effective leadership? In this post I explain five and suggest an idea for each to counter its potential negative impact.

Scientists call these ‘brain’ biases cognitive biases, judgment errors that rise from our tendency to mentally jump to conclusions. Daniel Kahneman,  Nobel prize winner and author of the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls them heuristics, mental shortcuts we use when we make decisions. Because our brain has limited energy, we can’t consciously ‘think’ before every decision. Therefore, we intuitively make many decisions (over 40% of what we do is habit) that require limited mental resources and allocate our brain energy only to those that require our immediate attention. As a result, we sometimes don’t make the best decisions which can impair our leadership.

Here are my top 5 brain biases.

The confirmation bias. This bias reflects our preference for those who agree with us. We subconsciously look for people and information to confirm our preexisting beliefs, actions, and attitudes. As a result we spotlight only the information that supports the decision we want to make and we tend to discard negative input that we need to see the full picture and make the wisest decision.

  • Suggestion:  Do a pre-mortem on a planned ministry or initiative. Before you make the decision, gather your team and ask, “Let’s assume we did (such and such) and it gloriously failed? What would we say contributed to the failure?” Allow full and frank discussion. This post goes into greater detail about this bias.

The planning fallacy. This bias explains how our plans and forecasts tend to mirror best case scenarios. When we plan a new initiative, we tend to assume everything will go as planned, with few bumps or obstacles along the way. For example, studies show that college students tend to vastly underestimate how long it takes to write a major paper.

  • Suggestion: Assume that your project will take you 50% longer than you anticipate. Schedule that extra time into your calendar. If it takes less than that, consider it bonus time to spend on other projects.

The sunk cost bias. This bias appears when we’ve invested considerable time and effort into something that is not going well, but we simply can’t give it up. If we did, we’d feel like a failure. This often happens in churches when we keep a ministry alive when we need to kill it.

  • Suggestion: What ministry or project is not working and draining your soul? If you could magically make it go away, how would you feel? If, as you imagine it gone, you feel a great weight off your shoulders, you may have succumbed to this bias. It may be time to kill that program or project. In this post I unpack this bias in more detail.

The correspondence bias. This bias is also called the fundamental attribution error. This happens when we attribute unseemly behavior of others to their character or personality but when do the same thing, we attribute it to external circumstances.

  • Suggestion: Give people the benefit of the doubt. Our brains are wired to be negative and assume the worst. Unless a behavior is really egregious, tone down your judgmentalism until you get the facts.

The halo bias  or halo effect. This bias mirrors the previous bias. It affects us when we make unrealistic judgments about a person’s ability to perform a task or judge their character based on positive qualities we see in him or her. Ministry expectations can easily fall to this bias. Church people can assume that because a new pastor has good speaking skills that he also must be a superb organizer, is great at hospital visitation, and is an excellent counselor. Unfortunately, most pastors can’t excel in every ministry area.

  • Suggestion: Find the core strengths of those you work with, both volunteer and paid. Help them develop those skills without trying to make them who God did not create them to be.

Bias can sneak into any leader’s life. Inventory your leadership and honestly ask if any of these biases have slipped in. If they have, create a simple plan to deal with them, sooner than later.

What other brain biases have you seen in ministry?

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15 Ways You can Encourage Your Pastor

When I wrote my second book 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I surveyed over 2,000 pastors through LifeWay Research and through an online survey through Christianity Today. In the CT survey, I asked pastors to share specific ways someone in their congregation ministered to them. I probed how people could (and did) encourage them. Here’s a sample of what they wrote. If you are not a pastor, consider doing one or two of these this week.

How to encourage your pastor …

  1. Defending me when someone attacks me verbally.
  2. Commenting on their understanding of my challenges.
  3. When hand-written notes come from godly people they mean so much.
  4. I think the greatest affirmation I receive is when my congregation trusts me.
  5. I would say it would be the time I received a homemade card from someone in the church telling me how much she appreciated me and that she was praying for me. Those words of encouragement were priceless.
  6. I don’t feel like I always have to be right, but I do like to have the opportunity to express my own views. Those who are most receptive to this are very affirming.
  7. Asking me how they can pray for me. I’m not talking about the hurried, polite questions that may come on a hectic Sunday morning, but when they genuinely ask.
  8. The ministry of presence like when they sat with me in the hospital when my wife had emergency surgery.
  9. When people go out of their way to really inquire how I’m doing.
  10. Anything not related to Sunday. I hear a lot of “great message, Pastor” but I don’t know if it’s sincere. A phone call a few days later that refers to something I did affirms me.
  11. The occasional person who tells me that “so and so” spoke kindly about me.
  12. When I know I have the support of my leadership.
  13. Those who know there is a spiritual and emotional cost to being a pastor even if they don’t really understand.
  14. They have come into my life and family and done something totally unexpected, unexplainable, and absolutely needed (came and cleaned our house when were sick, fixed a meal for us when times were tough, etc.).
  15. When a person takes the time to pay attention to my emotions I experience and conveys their desire to stand in prayer with me on issues that are troubling.

When a pastor faithfully serves and seldom receives encouragement from their church, their soul and passion can wither and die. This is the saddest response I received.

Most think the pastor needs no encouragement or affirmation but think that we should always be aware of his or her need for encouragement and affirmation. In 30 years of pastoring I would say that no more than a dozen times have people ever shown awareness.

If you are a pastor, what act of kindness from those in the church has encouraged you most?


“If you want to encourage your pastor, here’s how.” (tweet this quote by clicking here).


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How to Make Boring Church Announcements Memorable

I grew up in the church and by my calculation I’ve heard 10,931 church announcements, or thereabouts. I only remember one of them. Why did I only remember that one? Before I give you the answer, I must confess that for me announcements are often the most boring part of a service, yet mostly necessary. I’ve felt more stress from having to give them than when I’ve had to speak. I dislike giving announcements. I guess I don’t like them because I sometimes see most people’s eyes glaze over during announcement time. So why did I remember the one I referred to?

It happened when I served in California over ten years ago. I took a staycation and visited a few local churches since I didn’t have to attend my church the Sunday of that week. One church I visited met in a simple warehouse. About ten minutes into the service a man walked on stage with a microphone in one hand and a hotdog in another. He made a couple of announcements between bites. Then another guy walked up on stage with a mike and a hotdog. They began a dialogue about the church hotdog cookout that followed. I’ll never forget that creative announcement. Even as I write this post I’m getting hungry for a hotdog.

Although these two guys probably didn’t have the brain in mind when they made that announcement, they illustrated a basic rule of attention. The brain pays attention when expectations get violated. I expected the normal talking head to make announcements. But my brain was made more attentive because what I expected didn’t happen.

This simple brain concept not only applies to announcements, but to our sermons as well.

So, if you believe announcements are important and you want people to remember them, violate the people’s expectations. Here are a few simple ideas to incorporate into your announcements.

  1. Novelty (make them from a different location in your auditorium, use video, etc.)
  2. Surprise (mix up when during the service you make them, have separate people in the congregation stand up and make them, etc.)
  3. Humor (the key to humor is surprise)
  4. Object lessons/show and tell (i.e., like the hotdog)

What ideas have helped your announcements become more sticky?


“I just learned some creative ways to make announcements more sticky.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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5 Leadership Tensions Seen in Jesus’ Leadership

Some time back I delivered a message on how Jesus modeled masculinity. As I reflected on that talk, I realized similar parallels apply to leadership. Jesus lived within these leadership tensions during the three years He established our Faith. Although fully God in every way, He lived as a human in every way as well, yet was without sin. He perfectly balanced each of these qualities below that appear as opposites. As you read these five tensions, ask yourself which ones reflect your strengths and which ones need strengthening.

Power and Compassion

  • Jesus showed great power and guts when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (Matt 21). He also showed his commanding power when He called the religious leaders whitewashed tombs. (Matt 23.37)
  • Yet he touched the lepers, showed tenderness to the woman with an issue of blood, and showed compassion to the rich young ruler who wouldn’t give up his riches.

Head (intellect) and Heart (emotion)

  • He amazed the people with his grasp of the Scriptures at age 12 while in the Temple. His arguments and logic silenced even the most brilliant of his day. He even tongue-tied the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. He created ingenious intellectual dilemmas for his adversaries. He masterfully used Scripture in the context of life with allusions and questions that made others think.
  • Yet Jesus deeply loved people at levels they emotionally felt. The shortest verse in the Bible even says that, “Jesus wept.” (John 11.35)

Present and Future

  • Jesus approached people where they were. He didn’t ask broken people questions like, “How in the world did you let yourself get into such a jam?” He was a realist about human frailty.
  • Yet, he didn’t want people to stay where they were. He told Zacchaeus the tax collector to make restitution. He accepted him where he was, but He urged him to move forward into the future in a God honoring way. Jesus lived with a perfect blend of experiencing the present with an eye toward His future and toward helping others move into their best future.

Purpose and Freedom

  • Jesus knew why he had come, to do His father’s will. “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (John 4.34) He was bothered when the disciples didn’t take his mission seriously. He was passionate about his work. He knew what needed to be done and did it. He worked hard.
  • Yet he lived with an amazing sense of balance. He was never in a hurry, compulsive, and never forced people to do what He wanted them to do. He gave them freedom to choose. He said followership was voluntary, no arm-twisting or guilt motivation. He didn’t force his agenda on others. He knew his purpose and knew if others would embrace His purpose for them it would be best for them. Yet he released them to make their own choices.

Strength and Sensitivity (especially toward women)

  • On the sensitivity side, Jesus elevated the status of woman so high that he even praised a woman for what was a purely a masculine role, sitting at the feet of a Rabbi (when Mary sat at his feet). Jesus accepted financial support from women. He even defended a woman caught in adultery, not to approve her adultery, but to expose the injustice of her accusers.
  • Yet he was forceful. He was blunt with his mother when she was out of line to ask Him to do some things not a part of His messianic plan. He affirmed Mary’s role when he indirectly confronted Martha’s compulsiveness. In John 4 He candidly pointed out to the woman at the well that she had 5 husbands. Jesus knew when to be sensitive with women and when He needed to be strong and not back down.

I believe pastors and leaders, too, must live within these tensions.

  • Which of these is your greatest strength?
  • Which is your greatest weakness?
  • What would you add to this list?

“I just learned 5 leadership tensions in Jesus’ life that apply to spiritual leadership.”(click here to tweet this quote)


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7 Ways to Make a Graceful Exit and Leave Your Church Well

Unless you stay at the same church your entire life, you will leave one ministry or church and go to another, perhaps several times. In fact, the average pastor in the U.S. stays at one place about four years. I’ve served at six different churches in my 35 years in ministry and have always sought to leave well. At my current church I hope I’ll have another 10 years of fruitful service. I’ve learned, however, that leaving is more of an art and is often difficult. Here are 7 insights I’ve learned that have helped me make a graceful exit.

  • Deal with your baggage. Leave with a clear conscience that relationships have been made right, as much as is possible.
    • Acts 24:16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
    • Rom. 12:18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone
  • Don’t leave angry. Process your pain. If you struggle with anger after you leave, get coaching or counseling to avoid bitterness.
    • Hebr. 12:15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
  • Leave on top. That is, leave your ministry as healthy and as strong as possible.
    • Col. 3:23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men….
  • Speak well of the former leaders, both lay and paid. Don’t leave a trail of gossip. Don’t undermine the leaders or anyone else who may have hurt you. Don’t burn bridges. Leave in such a way that your and Christ’s reputation remain intact.
    • Prov. 22:1 A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
  • Let go of ownership. You are no longer in charge. You may be tempted to still influence it from afar. Guard against that.
  • Pray that God would bless the ministry even more with the new leader who replaces you.
    • 1Kings 1:37 “May the Lord be with Solomon as he has been with you, and may God make Solomon’s reign even greater than yours!”
  • Grieve well. Change brings loss. You will lose familiarity, relationships, and influence even as you gain those in your new ministry. Don’t be surprised if you grieve. The Apostle Paul grieved when he left the church at Ephesus for the last time.
    • Acts 20: 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: `It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” 36 When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

Years ago I heard a talk by Ellen Goodman about leaving well. This quote captures the spirit of a leader who makes a graceful exit.

There is a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over-and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on, rather than out.

What insights would you add to this list?


“I just learned some good insight about how to gracefully leave a ministry.”(tweet this quote).


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