Catch Yourself before Slipping into Default

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I was recently engaged in a free-flowing dialogue with a company CEO involved in building a better business mind-set among his team members. While we were talking, the door to his office suddenly opened, and a direct report entered the CEO’s inner sanctum unannounced.

There was an obvious sense of urgency behind this interruption. Nevertheless, the CEO in question immediately pounced on his employee, who did not know what hit him or even why he was being hit.  After muttering something about actually being called to deliver an important report ASAP, the employee quickly departed in a confused state, with both ego and job satisfaction shattered.

An eerie silence followed this incident, which I left up to the CEO to break. It was obvious from his body language that he was feeling awkward after his sudden outburst. “I know I should not have done that,” he finally said. “I often lose my composure and I don’t know why. It just keeps happening.”

I remained silent, allowing the CEO to open up even more. For the next few minutes, a river of emotions flowed out of the man as he expressed regret and embarrassment over the undesirable ways that he frequently behaves at work. It was clear that this man hated losing control, but lost it often.

When done with his confession, the CEO asked, “Why does this keep happening to me?” I had already composed my thoughts on the leadership dilemma he faced. “You slip into a default that needs to be reset,” I responded.

The answer puzzled him, so I explained that people get subconsciously wired to respond to similar situations and stimuli in pre-set ways without realizing it. Simply put, with limited brain power at our disposal, we create standard operating procedures and habitual responses to keep mental bandwidth free to handle complex situations in a creative manner.

Subconsciously setting defaults, in my opinion, can’t be avoided. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it is often desirable to let a host of work happen via our mental autopilot. Otherwise, our brains would be sapped to death trying to meet daily responsibilities.

That said, it is not desirable to fall victim to one’s default settings, which happens when autopilot behaviours run counter to what we would do if we were controlled by our conscious mind. After all, when in default mode, people tend to ignore circumstances presented by reality.

The three common casualties of slipping into default are:

  1. Discretion – In default mode, people often see a pre-set alternate version of the truth, which can lead to unprofessional and offensive behaviour
  2. Objectivity – Seized by biases, people in default often lack the capability of fair judgment
  3. Moderation – People in default can act in an extreme manner that defies logic and reasoning

As a result, a default occurrence is often followed by a combination of guilt, shame and regret. Awareness of the issue can lead to self-loathing. But in many cases, people eventually become immune to the emotional aftershocks triggered by their bad behaviour.

Some destructive defaults remain unquestioned despite being based on unfounded assumptions that made them counterproductive from the start. Others are born out of necessity, but remain in use long after their shelf life because most people do not tinker with their autopilot settings. Consequently, people often operate with bad defaults that cloud judgement and derail progress. And these defaults become more and more entrenched with the passage of time.

People with too many bad defaults invariably become distant from their team, community and social circle. They become arrogant lone-wolves, cut off from objective feedback and constructive advice.

So how do we avoid slipping into the default trap? This is a question that has always fascinated me as a businessperson and as an executive coach. Observing many leaders who are good at managing their autopilot settings has led me to conjure the following helpful steps that make a big difference:

  • AWARENESS: Understanding that we all have defaults and the potential for unwanted actions leads to awareness, which then prompts reflection that can lead to corrective actions
  • ALWAYS BE ON THE LOOKOUT: We often just let ourselves go on autopilot. Thinking about this first can make a big difference to people who have faced the wrath of default settings
  • SEEK FEEDBACK: Create a network of trusted people empowered to provide feedback whenever they see you slip into a destructive default. This requires being willing to listen to things said about you that aren’t pleasant to hear
  • LOG DEFAULTS: Keep a record of your slippages into default to assist in the development of insights that can help you recognize triggers and avoid falling into autopilot mode
  • CHECK EXPIRY DATES: Nothing is relevant forever, so use your default log to rethink your standard operating procedures. For example, examine how you typically deal with interruptions and delays to see if it is time to upgrade your operating system

Leaders have an obligation to be mindful of their defaults and work to keep them in check. This isn’t just about avoiding anti-social behaviour and being a nicer boss. It is about being a better leader and decision maker. After all, mindfulness of one’s defaults enables one to avoid premature autopilot deployment so that one can operate in conscious design mode when required. This makes life a more productive, aspirational and liberating experience.