Straight From The Horse’s Mouth

What do you really want: great analysis or your first impressions repeated back to you?

If you lived back at in the 1890’s, you would have been extremely impressed with a horse named Clever Hans. This horse correctly answered math and current event questions posed by his master by tapping out the answer with a hoof. He could even read and answer questions written out on cards by people in the audience!

Clever Hans amazed audiences for more than a decade before the truth emerged. No, the owner wasn’t perpetrating a fraud… the master was as shocked as everyone else to learn that Clever Hans didn’t excel in mathematics and world events. Where Clever Hans did excel was in pleasing his owner!

In 1904 it was demonstrated that the horse was looking for cues of approval. After the owner asked a question, Hans tapped his hoof until he perceived approval – perhaps a smile or a raised eyebrow. He had learned that, by stopping when he saw these cues, he was rewarded with an apple or carrot.

It’s not just horses that watch their masters for the “right answer.” Lawrence Bossidy, former CEO of Allied Signal, commented that he didn’t like hiring management strategy consultants because, “They spend too much time trying to figure out what I want to hear.”

We have all known folks who gain a leader’s confidence by parroting that leader’s opinions. Taking a page from Clever Hans, they watch and listen to divine the “master’s” thoughts before taking a firm stand.

Close To The Vest
The leader who truly seeks high quality, objective analysis on critical questions has to diligently avoid disclosing their own opinions. Even a smile or raised eyebrow can give it away.

Only after the others have come to their own opinions and laid those out on the table can the leader reveal their own leanings – and even then must be on guard against others quickly realigning their positions.

If not on guard, leaders will regularly hear only what they expected to hear without new ideas or truly different opinions. Like Clever Hans’ owner, the leader will receive back only what they already thought was the right answer.

After all, Clever Hans wasn’t always right. He was right only when his master actually knew the right answer. If the master’s knowledge or instinct was incorrect, Clever Hans copied the error. Then his master not only accepted the wrong answer, he rewarded it!

© 2012 Verax Point Consulting, LLC

About Dave Wittenberg

I am all about equipping business teams to enjoy greater payoffs on their biggest bets. I bring a unique combination of evaluation expertise and behavioral insights developed over the course of more than 300 major strategic initiatives. Applying a highly effective, disciplined framework, teams unleash their full capabilities to generate better solutions, wring out hidden waste, and deliver superior returns. Specialties: Investment Evaluation, Decision Excellence, Strategic Analysis, Mergers and Acquisitions, Investor Relations, Leadership Development, Education & Training
This entry was posted in Biases & Traps, Leadership & Decision-Making, Valuations. Bookmark the permalink.

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