The Dangers of Defaults – Six Traits Leaders Need to Review

February 8, 2023

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
Woman standing above mirror and reflection outdoors

As leaders we all have default settings: typical and habitual levels and routines that we return to again and again – and which therefore dictate how we perform, interact, achieve and behave.

I suggest you will benefit if you shine a light on yours to examine them and give them a good shake.

I’ve identified Six of them here, but you may find others…

1 The Default of Pace

We all have a standard pace at which we tend to work. We may accelerate it when the pressure is on but will soon return to that natural setting once the deadline has been met or the critical incident is over. Think about that standard ‘pace’. It dictates your productivity. It shapes how you are viewed by your team, your peers and stakeholders. It affects your mood and another crucial default: your mind-set (see below). Imagine if your pace was accelerated by 10% or even 1%. What would that do to your effectiveness? I’m not advocating rushing about like a headless chicken, just perhaps the removal of unhelpful procrastination and a slight increase to the sense of urgency you apply to the things that really matter. Should you push the accelerator just a tad?

2 The Default of Mind-set

This can be an invisible default setting. I’m talking here about your attitude to your role, your colleagues, your people and the organization – and about your beliefs and values. This includes what you think ‘good’ looks like and your perceptions of what is ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’.

A former colleague of mine had a belief that it was quicker and more efficient to carry a paper diary around than to use their technological support tools such as an online calendar with its reminders, scheduling and email communications. Another insists on driving to each and every meeting, whatever the traffic congestion might be, to avoid ‘unreliable public transport’ – while yet another believes that all meetings should be face to face and refuses to engage with the idea of video conferencing. Yet another was proudly a ‘stickler for punctuality’ and would berate anyone publicly who was even a minute late while ignoring the circumstances of the person (who may have been unable to park, delayed by their manager or dealing with a crisis situation) and with no regard for the contribution to the meeting.

These are basic defaults of attitude and mind-set – and they carry a price in terms of wasted time, mistakes, disengagement and missed opportunities. The first colleague had to have additional processes to ensure they planned ahead on times, tasks and reminders – and their schedule & availability was always invisible to their colleagues. They also often forgot events and lost track of projects with varying consequences.

The second is often late for meetings and occasionally misses them altogether, having turned back after long delays. The third spends perhaps 20 hours a month travelling to meetings that could have been ‘virtual’ – and causes others to have to do the same. The fourth had a valuable colleague with childcare responsibilities who felt undervalued, unsupported, became demoralised and depressed and eventually resigned.

What mind-set and attitudes do you have that may, in the current day, need to be re-examined?


3 The Default of Behaviour

A former colleague, who disliked confrontation and was uncomfortable with physical proximity, used therefore to conduct almost all communication remotely. Said leader would email colleagues who were a mere 10 feet away and once, memorably, reached over my shoulder to leave me a Post-It note with a message.

This default behaviour significantly undermined his relationships with his team (who would often receive upwards of 10 emails a day but rarely see him – and therefore viewed him as an ‘absentee landlord’ – often as a result ignoring or marginalizing his wishes or requests), with his peers (who thought he sat in his office doing nothing all day) and with his line manager (who believed he just wanted an easy life and couldn’t be relied upon in a crisis).

OK, this is an extreme example – but we all have behavioural preferences or habits that may be unhelpful. I, for example, have a tendency to say something deliberately provocative or odd, often because I want to push people to think differently. Sometimes though, it’s just because I’m amusing myself at others’ expense. I’m also driven to tinker with things that are working perfectly well, just because I love change and hate routine. Behavioural psychologists refer to such habits as ‘derailers’. What might yours look like?

4 The Default of Bias

This is inherent to some of the others too but is still worth further exploration. However enlightened we may think we are, it is pretty certain that we will be biased in some way. It needn’t be a discriminatory prejudice – though recent events show that there are still plenty of people with those ‘defaults’ – and could just be something as simple as an attitude to dress code, hairstyle or the car someone drives.

The danger for leaders especially comes when it is an unconscious bias. Even more so when it is one that we have decided isn’t a bias at all, but a justified belief. For example: one of many influencing factors in the unhelpfully low proportion of female senior leaders is, I suspect, an embedded belief among men that women are inherently more fragile and less capable of being calm under pressure. I have heard this expressed in many boardrooms over many years, often along with the bias that women will immediately disappear when pregnant or if their child is sick – often a rather ironic bias held by the sort of men who are a contributory factor in such issues by refusing to take their share of responsibility for childcare.

The trouble with bias, especially unconscious bias, is that it influences attitudes, decisions and outcomes from the shadows where it is invisible and often unspoken. My father lived for several years in India and the Middle East and would say, with absolute certainty, that Indian people couldn’t be trusted and ‘Arabs’ were lazy… and my father wasn’t an Alf Garnett figure or a member of a right-wing movement; he was a lawyer and a Liberal councillor who saw no irony in this cognitive dissonance.

My point is that we all have some degree of bias in our hearts and minds, even if it simply against sprouts or Marmite. It is worth reflecting and considering their potential impact – and whether it’s time to let them go.

5 The Default of Capability

I’ve saved one of the biggest until last. This is what coaches often refer to as a ‘limiting belief’ and can stall someone’s career, render them ineffective or just be a missed opportunity. It is the default belief we have about what we can or can’t do or achieve. So often I’ve heard people say ‘Oh I’d never be able to do that’ or talk themselves out of applying for a job because they ‘probably couldn’t do it’. This can be an impact of personality type but can also be a learned behaviour that may stem from childhood or school.

Something I’ve learned after almost 50 years of working with leaders, teams and individuals is that there are very few true limitations. Certainly, there are aptitudes and sometimes physical characteristics that affect someone’s ability to achieve something, but few of them make it impossible. World-class rugby players are big, strong people aren’t they? Well, Shane Williams was one of the best to ever play the game and he was just over 5’6” and weighed 12 ½ stone. Faf De Klerk is almost exactly the same size and was recently instrumental in leading his country to a world cup victory. Stephen Hawking could hardly move and yet changed the views of mankind about space and cosmology. You might counter that these are exceptional people. I would say that they are certainly people who have achieved exceptional things and had some opportunities and advantages that enabled their achievement and success.

But so do you.

What many people are really saying when they suggest that ‘I can’t do that’ is either ‘other people have told me that I can’t do that’ or worse still ‘I’m not prepared to make the effort to do that’ or even ‘I’ve never tried to do that but I suspect I can’t’. It could have a fear of failure or exposure in the background, it could be rooted in low self-esteem, it could even be reluctance to leave a comfort zone or simple laziness.

We are mostly limited by our ambition and our self-perception. Don’t allow your default beliefs to hold you back from something you want – or need – to achieve, nor from being the best version of yourself. If you don’t try, you’ll never know what you can do.

You are, after all, a human being. A creature with amazing capability and almost limitless potential. Use it for the greater good.

6. The Default of Powerlessness

Recent years have disrupted almost every corner of our lives and left many of us feeling that we are the victims of circumstances beyond our control. Of course, that’s true to some extent. But then it always was. The danger is that this can become a default position which renders us incapable of affecting our happiness, our ability to shape what happens to us, our freedom to think and act, our desire to make things better.

I’ve spent the whole pandemic as a ’clinically extremely vulnerable’ person – a CEV as the Government would have it – and therefore isolated for more than 2 years. I am still mostly prevented from doing many of the things I used to think were ‘normal’, such as going to a crowded pub, attending a concert or travelling on a train. I freely admit that I started to feel like a victim in the first lockdown… especially when my then employer decided to make me redundant a few months into the pandemic. I had more than a few dark nights of the soul, I can tell you.

But eventually I started to think about the upsides, rather than simply feeling that the downsides had been inflicted on me.

Not being able or needed to travel to the office meant that I could live almost anywhere, which enabled me to move to a beautiful village on the North Norfolk coast and create a life which I absolutely love. It put me at the front of the queue when the vaccines came on stream, helping me to feel far less threatened by the nameless killer. It removed thousands of hours of stressful car journeys, train delays, walking to and from railway stations in the rain when there weren’t any parking spaces, traffic jams, pointless meetings to talk about the same thing we talked about last time. So many benefits to go with those drawbacks.

Of course, I realize that for many people it had tragic outcomes – I myself lost family members and missed funerals. I know it caused terrible hardships for many. I understand that not everyone had the opportunities afforded to me – but there’s always an upside if you search hard enough, there are always opportunities, there are always options.

They may not be immediately apparent, and they may not be easy to take. They may not even work out and you’ll have to seek another alternative road – but you are absolutely not powerless. You have choices. You usually have the freedom to change your circumstances to some extent. The glass really is half full, not just half empty.

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