The Ayes Have It

I had cataract surgery last week. I’m not an anxious or nervous person. Surgery doesn’t bother me, in fact, I usually want to help. For some reason, having my eye operated on was different. I was actually pretty anxious about it. 

I’ve had poor eyesight my whole life. I’ve worn glasses my whole life. I’m used to it, but it is always slightly inconvenient. Especially when it rains. Lately though, my vision has been getting worse. So, when my optometrist told me I had cataracts, I was initially excited because, in addition to clearing up the cataracts, the surgery could correct my vision. 

However, in the weeks leading up to the first procedure, I almost talked myself out of it. Thinking about having my eye cut open and my natural lens removed spooked me. I started thinking my eyesight wasn’t that bad. Maybe I would be fine just leaving things the way they were. I seriously almost backed out. 

Humans are often affected by psychological inertia and status quo bias. Simply put, we often prefer the situation we are familiar with over new or different circumstances because we are afraid of change and potential loss. In my case, I started thinking my poor and worsening vision was tolerable rather than subject myself to the unknown of cataract surgery.

Ironically, knowledge is rarely an antidote. I knew the surgery result would be good. I talked to several people who had already undergone the same procedure and were very happy they did. I still felt a strong tug to stay put, to not change things, due to fear and anxiety.

The status quo is rarely a good place for leaders to spend their time. Change is always happening around us and our organizations. If we are unwilling or unable to change, we will find ourselves losing our sight. Leaders cannot afford to be afraid to make necessary and beneficial changes in their organizations, processes, and people.

I already mentioned that having information is often not enough to overcome our bias towards the current state. Then what can we do to overcome this inertia and be open to making the changes necessary for a healthy and growing organization?

First, imagine that someone has come to you with the same situation and information, and think through the advice you would give them. It is amazing to me how often I am talking to someone I am mentoring and hear myself give them advice I should be taking myself. It is easier to detach from the emotions that surround difficult decisions when we are giving advice to someone else. So, role play if you need to, and give yourself your best advice.

Second, try to think farther into the future and play out what effect not making the change may have. The inertia to stay in the current situation is short sighted and tends to ignore longer term realities. In my case, my cataracts would continue to get worse, and my vision would degrade until I was functionally blind. I would eventually be forced to have the surgery and waiting only prolongs the time I can’t see well and cuts short the time I can. Carefully consider the impact over time of not making the change.

Lastly, clarify your values. Often, difficult decisions are choices between two values. Letting someone go who is not a good fit for your team forces you to choose between the value of taking care of each individual and the value of creating a safe and caring community. Closer discernment tells us that keeping someone who is not a fit isn’t really good for them either, so it is in both their and the group’s best interest to help them find another place. 

Just a few days post-surgery, I am already very happy that I went through with the change. When looking through my left eye, I can now see how dark and discolored things had become. I can focus without my glasses and can tell that when I am used to the lens and have the other eye fixed, my vision will be substantially better than it has been my whole life.  That’s the other thing about status quo bias. When we finally get past our aversion and make the change, we find ourselves asking, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” Leaders need to be able to make necessary changes in a timely manner. We owe it to the people we lead to not bog down in psychological inertia, because we are not just impacting our ability to see, we are keeping them in the dark too. Saying aye to challenging and changing the status quo is a key to healthy communities, and it is the Bison Way.