Recently I was running on one of my favorite trails, maintaining a great pace. There are a few short stairs on the trail and as I approached the first of stairs I said to myself, “Be careful on the stairs and don’t trip. Watch your footing, Robyn.” Of course, you know what happened. I tripped, took a hard fall, and banged up my knee and elbow. “How stupid can you be?” I thought. “I warned you,” said my inner critic. “I said, ‘don’t trip,’ yet that’s exactly what you did!”

Later I reflected on how often I have done the same thing – thought something that I did not want to happen, and it happened. I created the very thing I was trying to avoid. Years ago I attended a presentation by a former pilot who described this phenomenon. Pilots in simulators would focus so much on avoiding the one tree in the middle of an open field that invariably they would hit the tree. He called this negative target fixation.

As a leader you can also create the very thing you are trying to avoid. If you focus strongly on the worst case scenario or believe that your team will have difficulty achieving a goal, your thinking can quite often make it so. Chris Argyris, a Harvard leadership expert, shared an insightful model called the Ladder of Inference. It illustrates how our thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions about a person or persons creates the very thing that we believe to be true, whether it is or not. For example, I notice that Jessica is often not at her desk when I walk past. I begin to think that she is slacking off, assume she is not a hard worker, and adopt a belief that Jessica is someone I have to manage closely.

What the Ladder reveals is that I begin to look for behaviors and actions that support my belief. I notice when Jessica is not at her desk or make note of her chatting with a colleague in the hallway. I don’t notice the times when she is at her desk or coming in early or staying late. Lo and behold, eventually my behavior toward Jessica and my micromanaging creates resentment, negatively impacts her morale, and “confirms” my belief. Jessica becomes a disengaged, frustrated employee who is a challenge to manage.

We often create reality from our thoughts. This can work on the positive side as well. It’s what the law of attraction is all about and it is the “halo effect” that can come from a positive climb up the Ladder of Inference for our favored employees. In order to avoid these self-fulfilling beliefs we have to change the conversation with ourselves, question our beliefs and assumptions, and create a vision of what we want instead.

How have your thoughts created a reality? With whom might you being climbing up the Ladder of Inference? What thoughts and beliefs are driving you?
Please leave a comment to share.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

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