Clearing a Path for Grateful Leadership


The Gratitude Connection: Clearing a Path for Grateful Leadership

By Donald Officer


           You are an expert. But are your judgments verifiable, or are you a respect-expert?

 – Authors of Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment


This quotation is a good way to get into a discussion of a new book by three world-class thinkers who wonder quite openly about how people, especially in organizations, reach their decisions. Given what the evidence reveals after the fact, reliability in judgment is often very much in question. But what is a respect-expert? A respect-expert is an authority whose expertise cannot be dependably relied upon if defined and rated by measurable outcomes. This is not a slur on the character, intelligence, experience, or skill level of the individual. Rather it is an inherent difficulty respect-experts have in predicting what can or will happen despite demonstrated ability to thoroughly understand the situation.

We see this incapacity in pundits, shrewd observers, and serious scholars. Respect-experts offer opinions on subjects they know cold yet are still unable to foresee actual outcomes of real significance. That we recognize respect-experts are not necessarily reliable forecasters is reflected in their continued reappearance in the media and big book contract offers no matter how far off their previous predictions landed. The three authors of Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment released this year are big names in their respective areas of expertise which overlap enough to strengthen the credibility of their shared argument. While they too are respect experts, they have made serious predictions prompting responses we can be grateful for. In Noise, they demonstrate both how to detect and successfully manage the worst aspects of the phenomenon.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and author of the popular Thinking, Fast and Slow won a Nobel Prize in economics for the research he and Amos Tversky pursued revealing how very little rational input influences financial decision-making. This research dealt a blow to the orthodox belief in “economic man” changing how we view financial markets forever. Legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, the second Noise author, worked with behavioral economics researcher Richard H. Thaler on studies and real-world experiments showing how governments and other agencies might achieve better, more acceptable results by nudging citizens to do the right thing instead of bringing down a heavy authoritarian or misleading hand. In global business circles, the third contributor, Olivier Sibony, a distinguished consultant, scholar, and knight in the French Légion d’Honneur, has changed the way commerce operates for his clients over his 25 years with McKinsey and Company. There, as in the classroom, he like his coauthors uncovered the weaknesses and strengths of different decision methodologies. 

This book addresses a risk factor, invisible in itself, which organizations, leaders, and just about everyone on the ground face daily. Somehow most of us make never intended impressions that blunt or skew our best efforts on the job and in life. Sadly, such miscues include honest grateful leadership efforts. Unpleasant though such medicine might taste when we swallow it, we should be grateful for being made aware of the problem before we need to be.

The title Noise is a metaphor, but one which has taken on a broad but measurable technical meaning embodying a core idea behind modern information theory. Electronics and every other form of communications transmission would be all but impossible if we did not have the means to remove or dampen the static and incidental interference from our transmitted messages. Noise in the sense this book intends is broader still. We have been made very much aware in this era of social justice and sharp divisions of the powerful effects of bias. Although bias may appear noise-like, it is intended and usually obvious. In its worst, most hateful form it is glaring.

As mentioned earlier, noise in the broader communications sense is invisible as well as inaudible but the effects are often conspicuous. Those who trigger it may be unaware of that and most importantly, do not consciously intend to produce it. We live if you hadn’t noticed, in a noisy world. Political arenas are frightfully noisy as well as highly biased. Proposed measures are as likely to be impeded by unintended interference as they are by outright opposition. The commercial world is flooded by so much choice, consumers are continuously driven to noisy distractions. Media especially, and especially social media prompt the uninformed, the poorly informed, and the highly frustrated with endless opportunities to make bad decisions.

In organizations, noise is compounded and complexified. Managers try to shoulder the burden of noise control even if they can’t name or recognize it. This, on top of the bias management that sometimes clumsy attempts at inclusion already impose. One example that sticks out which the authors examine closely is hiring. Outstanding candidates may not be the best candidates for many reasons. But their performance during interviews may obscure that reality if they are not assessed strictly for essential abilities one by one. Likewise, members of hiring boards should be kept apart to the extent possible until the final decision is to be made. As the authors of Noise note, you would not want witnesses of a crime to share their stories before testifying.

Too much noise is negative creating mistrust in the message and by association, with the messenger. It is as dangerous as bias. More so for being hidden. Gratitude, coming from leaders offers a powerful antidote to noise drawing attention away from background buzz or distortion. Grateful leaders offer courage, resilience, and grit emphasizing the real message above the din.

Nor is all noise bad. A certain level shows everyone there’s work to do. Low-level noise draws attention to weaknesses and problems prompting imaginative and appropriate responses. Too much quiet lulls us into passive acceptance of situations we must not ignore. We should be grateful for that. Noise awareness reveals that problematic though it can be, its presence is not the deliberate mischief of saboteurs which you can detect in the tone of its instigators. If you are grateful for the actions, presence, and existence of your colleagues (and even adversaries) you can clear away those distracting intrusions with a clear conscience and a joyful spirit.



What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment.