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If you are reading this, it means that the world has not ended, yet. Either the prediction was wrong, or it is for December 21st. We think that both are wrong and NASA supports us… Of course, some of you may think that the end of the word is preferable to Christmas anxiety, but we at White Water are actually quite fond of the holiday season and have published our Advent Calendar of Christmas Survival Tips on our Facebook page – just Like our page for full access. So what do End Of The World predictions have to do with leadership? In two words: Cognitive Dissonance. Or the inability to admit that you were wrong in the face of clear-cut evidence. We have to go back to 1954 and an obscure cult, as documented by Social Psychologist Leon Festinger. Members believed that the world would end on December 21st (again!) in a great flood, but that true believers would be collected by a flying saucer and transported to a planet called Clarion. When neither the flying saucer nor the flood materialised, two interesting things happened: – believers immediately rationalised the event to confirm their belief (in this case, they became convinced that their prayers had persuaded the God of Earth to spare the planet from destruction) – they then went on the offensive, proselytising to seek social support and dilute the pain of disconfirmation The theory of Cognitive Dissonance was born from this experiment and explains in part the almost pathological inability of some leaders to admit they were wrong. Examples abound, from WMDs to Sub-Prime Lending and this seems to be hard wired and go way beyond loss of face. There are positive aspects to believing strongly an idea will succeed despite evidence to the contrary. From Edison’s thousands of attempts at perfecting the light bulb, to Steve Job’s ‘Reality Distortion Field’, this is the stuff business folklore is made of. Job’s continuing ‘reinterpretation’ of reality allowed Apple employees to survive multiple failures, grow the number of ‘believers’ and eventually deliver business success. However, for every great story, there are many examples of leaders living a fantasy to the point of destruction. As they grow their cult, the stakes get higher until a final – and highly destructive – blow up. Each time, there is plenty of evidence of whistle-blowers not being listened to, and a culture of strident orthodoxy: ‘You’re with us or against us!’ So what can we do as leaders to avoid believing our own flying saucer stories and yet create a climate of ‘positive persistence’? Our recommendations are: – Reject hypocritical agreement: literally ‘not sufficiently critical’. Whenever an idea receives sheepish or play-acting agreement, send it back for another round of discussion – Assemble diverse, feisty teams: they are more likely to dissent and generate creative solutions – Provide a learning environment for failure: allow people to experiment using quick feed-back in a way that is not costly to the organisation This gets us back to simple things such as how we run meetings, encourage debate, and learn from our mistakes at all levels. Businesses are not antique Greek democratic societies, but thoughtful debate may just save us from the wrong kind of End of the World! Have a great Christmas break; we’ll be back in 2013 with new thoughts and ideas. Averil, François and all at the White Water Group  

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