Straight From The Horse’s Mouth

What do you really want: reliable analysis or your first impressions repeated back to you?

If you lived back at in the 1890s, you would have been extremely impressed with a horse named Clever Hans. This horse correctly answered math and current event questions posed by his master by tapping out the answer with a hoof. He could even read and answer questions written out on cards by people in the audience!

Clever Hans amazed audiences for more than a decade before the truth emerged. No, the master wasn’t perpetrating a fraud… the master was as shocked as everyone else to learn that Clever Hans didn’t excel in mathematics and world events. Where Clever Hans did excel was in pleasing his master!

In 1904 it was demonstrated that the horse was looking for cues of approval. After the master asked a question, Hans tapped his hoof until he perceived approval – perhaps a smile or a raised eyebrow. He had learned that, by stopping when he saw these cues, he was rewarded with an apple or carrot.

It’s not just horses that watch their masters for the “right answer.” Lawrence Bossidy, former CEO of Allied Signal, commented that he didn’t like hiring management strategy consultants because, “They spend too much time trying to figure out what I want to hear.”

We have all known folks who gain a leader’s confidence by parroting that leader’s opinions. Taking a page from Clever Hans, they watch and listen to divine “the master’s” thoughts before taking a firm stand.

Close To The Vest

The leader who truly seeks high quality, objective analysis on critical questions has to diligently avoid disclosing their own opinions. Even a smile or raised eyebrow can give it away.

Only after the others have come to their own opinions and laid those out on the table can the leader reveal their own leanings – and even then must be on guard against others quickly realigning their positions.

If not on guard, leaders will regularly hear only what they expected to hear without new ideas or truly different opinions. Like Clever Hans’ master, the leader receives back only what they already thought was the right answer, impressed by the apparent intelligence of their staff.

After all, Clever Hans wasn’t always right. He was right only when his master actually knew the right answer. If the master’s knowledge or instinct was wrong, Clever Hans copied the error. Then his master not only accepted the wrong answer, he rewarded it!

© Dave Wittenberg