What if you’re wrong? How to challenge your own thinking to become a stronger thought leader

Thought leadership is, by definition, leading with your thinking. But what if your thinking needs to change?

In her book Thinking 101, Professor Woo-Kyoung Ahn talks about various cognitive biases that cause us problems in our daily lives. From thinking that we’re better at something than we actually are to our fear of loss leading us astray, there are so many ways in which our biases get in our ways.

And for thought leaders, whose very job is to drive new ways of thinking, those biases can be more than just annoying – they can get in the way of you doing your best work.

So what do you need to be aware of? And how can you overcome those biases to create great ideas that have a truly positive impact?

The struggle to change our minds

Professor Ahn highlights two biases that I believe are most relevant to thought leaders trying to develop new or improved ideas:

  • Confirmation bias, when we don’t seek or acknowledge information that might contradict what we already think is correct, and
  • Biased interpretation, when we interpret new data to fit with what we already think is true.

There’s plenty of crossover between the two, but the key thing to understand here is that we all fall prey to both. Plenty of studies have shown that not only do we tend to only ask questions that will affirm our existing hypothesis or world view (check out more about Wason’s 2-4-6 test to see what I mean), we can also come to very different conclusions from the same information depending on what we believe.

You might be thinking “Well, that’s all well and good – but how exactly does this relate to thought leadership?”. After all, the majority of thought leadership isn’t overtly biased politically, nor does it take a religious stance. However, just because an idea doesn’t butt up against those kinds of emotional or divisive beliefs, doesn’t mean that it’s not butting up against any beliefs at all. And if you want your ideas to connect with other people (who may or may not have those same beliefs), then you need to consider where they’re coming from.

Or you might be thinking “Well, I’m too smart to do that – I can see when I’m being biased”. Believe me, I’ve thought the exact same thing. Surely I’m far too open-minded and far too intelligent to be stuck in my own bias!

In his book Think Again, Adam Grant calls this the “I’m not biased” bias, in which people believe they’re more objective than others – and smart people are way more likely to fall into that trap (this excerpt from Professor Ahn’s book looks at that in more detail). Given that you’re an expert who’s looking to build thought leadership, I’m going to make the assumption that you’re pretty damn smart – so unfortunately you’re probably prone to this without even realising it (no judgement here – I know I am!)

So if we know that we are all biased (regardless of how smart we are), and we know that we need our ideas to connect with people who may not have the same beliefs as us, how can we ensure we’re not getting caught in our own biased interpretation?

Act like a scientist

In Think Again, Adam Grant talks about scientist mode. As a scientist, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data.

In scientist mode, you refuse to let your ideas become ideologies. You don’t start with answers or solutions; you lead with questions and puzzles.

Imagine applying that concept to your thought leadership. Instead of coming up with an idea and immediately defending why it’s correct, why not treat it as a hypothesis and follow the scientific method?

  1. Define a question to investigate, or the problem you’re trying to solve
  2. Make predictions about what you think the answer could be
  3. Gather data – this could look like testing your idea, trying to disprove it (more on that below), or collating research from other places
  4. Analyse that data – look for trends, connections, and surprises
  5. Draw conclusions and share your findings with your audience

By treating your idea as a hypothesis instead of a foregone conclusion, you’ll help avoid confirmation bias and ensure that you reach the best possible result rather than just the one that came to you first.

If you really want to overcome that confirmation bias though? I’d recommend trying to…

Disprove your ideas

It may seem counter intuitive, but attempting to disprove your ideas is one of the most powerful ways you can make your ideas better.

Not only does it help you avoid your own biases, it will help you see where you could improve, and give you the confidence that your idea has been robustly tested.

Recently, we created a tool called the Intelligent Think deck. This deck of cards includes questions that fall under a number of categories to help you make your ideas even better (if you want, you can get your own deck here). Some of the categories are fun – things like Thinking Collaboratively and Thinking Creatively are designed to pull out new ideas or get you thinking in new ways.

But the most confronting category is, without a doubt, Thinking Critically. That’s because these questions are designed to help you challenge your ideas and attempt to disprove them. Some of the questions that might help you to do this are:

  • What if your beliefs or assumptions on this are just plain wrong?
  • How would someone argue against this idea?
  • Are you thinking like a soldier or a scout? (A soldier’s job is to protect and defend; a scout’s job is to seek out and understand – Julia Galef).
  • What’s one good point that your opposition might raise?

Being a scientist means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not for reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn.

What does this mean for thought leadership?

Okay, so you’ve acted like a scientist, challenged your ideas and done everything you can to avoid confirmation bias or biased interpretations. What now?

Well, if you’re experimenting with thought leadership, you’re probably wondering how you change OTHER people’s minds. If people are stuck in their ways, and are going to be victims of confirmation bias, how can you possibly convince them to change their minds or implement ideas that might challenge them?

As a thought leader, it’s your job to take them on the journey with you. Don’t be afraid to show your own bias, how you’ve been challenged and how you’ve challenged yourself. Showing that you’ve changed your mind is incredibly powerful in helping someone else let their guard down. If they can empathise with where you were, and see where you’ve come from, they’re more likely to consider new ideas themselves.

And if you need some help taking a more scientific approach to your thought leadership, get in touch