Why Clever Business Owners Do Dumb Things
As a psychologist and serial small business owner it has always fascinated me to observe myself and other small business owners doing dumb things, repeatedly. I am unwilling to accept that we do such things because we are dumb, but I have to acknowledge that this is a plausible explanation. It is, however, not the subject of this article. My assumption in writing this piece is that I, and my small business colleagues, are reasonably intelligent – hence I hope you enjoy my article Why Clever Business Owners Do Dumb Things.
My own experiences and observations of others’ includes countless examples of behaviour which is illogical, immoral, problem generating, contrary to values, and which demonstrates a profound disregard for the consequences of the behaviour. Clearly these are not behaviours which a clever person would choose to carry out. This led me, as a psychologist, to consider the phenomenon of “control” in the lives of normal people. I began to ask clients “Who do you believe is in control of what you do?” Once the distraction of “influencing” factors (such as spouse, boss, or customers) was dealt with, the overwhelmingly common self-report was “I am in control of what I do”. My next question to them became “Have you ever done any dumb things, repeatedly?” Again the profoundly common response was an unsurprising “Yes”. I wonder if, as you read these words, you can see the inherent paradox in these two normal and understandable responses? Surely if normal people are in control of what they do, they would not repeatedly carry out actions which do not work.
From a small business owner’s perspective this is a really important realisation. As a psychologist, and as a customer and consultant to businesses small and large, I find the paradox of people repeatedly doing things that don’t work to be almost universal. I have developed a metaphor to explain this phenomenon which also provides ways to help minimise this common and dangerous process.
Before introducing the metaphor I want you, my reader, to open up your mind to a novel way to view your own behaviours. I want to consider some innocent and trivial things initially. You will have put on clothes this morning. In doing so you will have made many decisions and carried out a range of quite sophisticated actions. The example I commonly use is putting on underwear. Putting on a pair of undies typically requires you to put one leg in before the other. You may be able to recall which leg you chose to put into your undies first this morning. Which one is of no real consequence. The important thing to notice is that it was probably the same leg you chose yesterday, and all of your yesterdays for your entire adult life. In other words you do it automatically, and whether you like it or not, that means you are not in control when you do it – you are under the control of your habitual behaviour which you learned when you were a tiny child.
This example of automaticity can be easily extended into almost all of your behaviours. Whilst we do have the ability to make decisions, and to influence our actions, most of what we do is a result of the accidental programming which we acquire over the whole of our lives. We then carry out that behaviour – whether it works or not. Luckily most of it works, and luckily we do have the ability to change. Sadly that ability to change is a really difficult challenge – unless we have a model of understanding how it can be done.
Now that you have an insight into the automaticity of your own behaviours, let me introduce you to the way I explain this behaviour. It is my belief that we act as if we had two separate, but complementary, brains. One of these brains is clever. It is capable of logic, moral choice, problem solving, reference to our values, and consideration of the consequences of our behaviours. Does this list sound familiar? It is the opposite of the list given in the second paragraph of this article. As a business owner I am confident that you have done “dumb things”, and that these dumb things are contrary to the five activities of which your Clever Brain is capable of performing. Now let me introduce your other brain, the one that chose which leg you put into your undies first this morning. My convenient name for this brain is your Auto Pilot. This brain is a phenomenal “doing machine”. It dresses you, chews your food, and carries out every action and thought you do which does not require you to think. It even has the ability to “emulate” intelligent thought. If you train it well enough it will even appear to perform the functions of your Clever Brain. But, as you have already admitted, it is equally willing to carry out behaviours and reactions which do NOT work, and to do so repeatedly. It seems obvious to me that each of these brains has an individual defect, and that these defects explain why clever people do dumb things. If our clever brain were in control of what we do, we would not do dumb things. This observation leads me to conclude that our Clever Brains must be inherently lazy. They put in the minimum required effort to train our Auto Pilot how to do stuff, and then the Clever Brain goes back to sleep. The Auto Pilot, on the other hand, is constantly awake and alert, willing to control every aspect of our lives, whether those behaviours and reactions work or not. Thus I conclude that our Auto Pilot is an incredibly trainable moron – incapable or rational thought.
As a business owner you have many obligations. The success of your business is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of you, your family, your employees, your customers, and your suppliers. If your business is currently thriving, delivering profits to you, allowing you quality time with your family, enriching the lives of your motivated and happy employees, satisfying the needs of your customers, and engaging in mutually satisfactory relationships with your suppliers, then congratulations, your Auto Pilot is doing a fantastic job.
If ANY of those areas are not fully functional then guess who is to blame? Yep – your Auto Pilot. You now have an explanation as to why you do dumb things – but NOT an excuse. You also have an obligation to awaken your lazy Clever Brain and bring its intelligence to bear on your business. Hopefully the result will be logical, moral, problem solving, in line with your values, and will have great consequences. Let me know if you are having any trouble – maybe I can help.