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Why is it that surgeons tend to recommend surgery and negotiators, negotiating? And why is it that house painters recommend a fresh coat and therapists recommend, well, therapy?!

Is it all part of some sort of conspiracy? Does it have to do with, as a former mentor of mine once put it when talking about consultants, “They’re in the business of identifying problems that the solutions they already have can solve”?

Or is there something else going on, here?

The Law of the Instrument

Back in the early 1960’s, philosophy professor Abraham Kaplan was speaking to a group of researchers from UCLA. His overriding message: They would do well to take a fresh look at the inherent biases of their favorite research methodologies and preferences.

Just “because certain methods happen to be handy,” or someone happens to be “trained to use a specific method,” he warned, “is no assurance that the method is appropriate” for the problems being studied.

Kaplan described a phenomenon, which he called the “law of the instrument,” to describe the problem:

“When you give a small boy a hammer, he’ll soon believe that everything he encounters needs pounding!”

Abraham Kaplan, Philosopher

Leaving aside the inference that Kaplan seemed to think some of the world’s greatest researchers were merely small boys with hammers, the point he was making is an intriguing one.

To frame it as the Decision Lab has, “the law of the instrument principle states that when we acquire or are given a specific tool/skill (such as computer programming), we tend to be influenced by its function and utility – leading us to see opportunities to use that tool/skill everywhere.”

The problem, of course, is the tendency to do that can significantly limit better ideas, approaches, and solutions from ever surfacing.

In other words, relying so heavily on what we already know – and are already comfortable with – creates a hidden bias that will seriously limit our ability to see things objectively and can seriously dilute our impact, influence, and ability to achieve.

Leader Bias is Also a Thing

Consider what another Abraham, Abraham Maslow, had to say a few years after Kaplan:

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Abraham Maslow, Psychologist

The implications and inferences for leaders are undeniable – many (most?) leaders suffer from this exact same bias, whether they realize it or not…whether they admit to it or not.

A hiring manager might describe it this way: You lose credibility the moment you assert you have 10 years of experience when you really only have 2 years of experience, repeated 5 times.

That’s not leadership. That’s rote repetition.

Hammering Home the Idea

Consider, as well, what historian Robert Kagan wrote this in his 2003 essay, Of Paradise and Power:

“When you don’t have a hammer, you don’t want anything to look like a nail.”

Robert Kagan, Historian

Here’s what that looks like in a leadership context:

  • When leaders avoid difficult or challenging conversations because they seem, well, too difficult or challenging
  • When leaders fail to to plan because they’re ‘too busy’ failing to delegate or sufficiently cross-train those in their sphere of influence
  • When leaders hang their direct reports out to dry because they don’t want to take the ‘hit’, themselves
  • When leaders are rude and disrespectful because they haven’t learned to properly manage their stress and strain

I, for one, find it just so terribly sad how leaders so easily default to such irresponsible behaviors at the first sign of trouble.

If only they’d work half as hard as they do at avoiding the real work they’re supposed to be doing.

Do. Your. Job.

You know what they call work that involves only doing what you want to do? They call it a hobby.

And you know what a leader’s job is, in large part? To do the real work, regardless of whether they want to, or not.

In other words:

  • Just because an idea worked in the past doesn’t mean it’s still the right idea for today – with the possible exception of tube socks, one size does NOT fit all, especially over time.
  • Just because you are ABLE to complete a task in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the RIGHT way to complete that task – if you’re not considering the unintended consequences or your actions (or inaction) you’re only making things worse.
  • Just because you don’t know what to do in a particular circumstance doesn’t give you license to NOT do – you need to figure it out, as in pronto, because people are relying on you.

How’s YOUR Toolkit?

Said another way, the job of a leader is not just to use whatever tools are most convenient or most readily available – the job of a leader is to properly identify, and then ably use, the tools most appropriate for the situation at hand.

Might that mean using a hammer under some circumstances? Absolutely!

But many (most?) circumstances require more nuance.

If you’re not sure what tools you need, or are recognizing that you’d likely benefit from adding some additional tools to your toolkit, we should talk.

“Changing How You THINK Changes How You LEAD!!”

Barry Zweibel, MCC-Master Certified Coach | |

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