The CEO's Preconceived Notions

Preconceived notions, we've all got 'em.  As human beings we seem well constructed to filter information that we're exposed to -- largely ignoring anything that contradicts those cherished beliefs, and latching onto anything supportive.

Try examining your own beliefs with this in mind.  Say you're strongly opposed to laws and regulations that limit the sale of guns.  I'll bet, if you're honest with yourself, you find reasons to discount the testimony of many of the Sandy Hook parents concerning gun violence.  On the other hand, if you're in favor of limiting gun sales, you've probably found "reasons" to ignore the statistics on crimes involving assault weapons.

I'm ambivalent on this particular subject, and so can recognize the hard-line positions and how the preconceived notions work on both sides of the debate.  Other subjects, however, I'm just as guilty of being ruled by my own preconceived notions as the next person.  As an old boss once said:  "I love it when the facts confirm my preconceived notions."

Religion, abortion, gun control, politics, government, food safety, immigration -- all are fertile ground for opinion to trump logical thought.  In fact, on emotionally charged topics logic generally seems to be scarce, as emotion and belief tend to rule the day with most people.

The same phenomena is true in business.  What constitutes a "good" acquisition, what defines a positive leadership style, the "secrets" to motivating people, what constitutes proper employee discipline -- many of the things that aren't easily measured fall into this category of preconceived notions.  These beliefs tend to develop over time through the school of hard knocks when a manager goes through a difficult experience and learns a hard lesson (like some of the ones I've presented in these posts).  With a little reinforcement, before long that lesson becomes a mantra.  Rather than recognizing the lesson was probably highly dependent on the situation under which it was learned, it becomes a rule (or law) to be applied to all situations.

Yet, if these lessons were great enduring truths, they would be distilled down to their essence and taught in every MBA course in the country.  Managers tend to ignore situational dependence, and look carefully for any supporting evidence (ignoring anything contrary) in an attempt to extrapolate their preconceived notions into general rules.

Fortunately, hierarchy tends to keep a lid on this for most managers, particularly when one of the manager's preconceived notions conflicts with someone else's higher up.  The biggest trouble comes when the big boss has preconceived notions of his own.

Since most CEOs are not challenged by their organizations for any one of a variety of reasons -- such as fear of: retribution, criticism, ostracism, ridicule, demotion, termination, or any number of other potentially bad outcomes -- most get plenty of reinforcement of their preconceived notions and suffer few , if any, real challenges to them.  This means that if a manager is predisposed to this fallacy, it will likely run rampant if she becomes a CEO.  I had an boss who once called this "Drinking their own bathwater."

I once had a boss that was convinced (a preconceived notion), that an industry immediately adjacent to one I was managing was unprofitable.  I put together a proposed joint venture with a company in this industry, and the core assets, according to their financials, were quite profitable.  Despite the evidence in their audited financial statements, he persisted in claiming that there was no way the business could be making money.  He insisted there was something wrong with the statements (implying book cooking of some sort), and claimed that even if they were correct, the joint venture would be below break even in a very short time.  The JV was ultimately rejected despite my best efforts to get it approved.

There was no point in ever returning to this argument, but against my better judgment I presented another deal in the same profit-cursed industry a few years later.  The result of his review was much the same.  In addition to a number of other objections, I again heard the now familiar preconceived notion that no one in the industry was profitable.

I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I'd just recognized the nature of these types of beliefs before putting the proposal together.

Your boss (assuming he/she is a  human being, not a robot) likely has a number of preconceived notions, and it is in your best interest to learn these and stay on the right side of them.  Don't kid yourself into believing that you can change these deeply held notions -- you'll simply be banging your head against the proverbial wall.  14.2

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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.

"Heir Apparent" is a sequel to "Deliverables," pairing ex-CIA agent Joel Smith against a serial killer in Kansas City.

"Heir Apparent" is a sequel to "Deliverables," pairing ex-CIA agent Joel Smith against a serial killer in Kansas City.

Cover for Heir Apparent, my most recently published novel is to the right. 


Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013)-- note, the ebook version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for a limited time at Amazon for $4.99.

These novels are all based on extensions of my experiences as a senior manager in the world of public corporations.