Share Article:

Notes on Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps6 min read

This week I want to focus on a very practical book on complexity, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to thrive in complexity by Jennifer Garvey Berger.

Garvery Berger outlines five quirks of thinking that have historically been beneficial but can create challenges when dealing with complexity.

Simple Stories

Humans have been elevated and connected by stories.

Telling stories is part of what makes us human, so we are biased toward creating stories. This can lead to three distinct biases leading to issues in complex situations: “looking for a beginning, middle, and end; filling in the missing pieces; and assigning roles to the characters.”

One of the great achievements of humans is that we understand cause-and-effect relationships; but we overuse that skill by creating fairly simple connections between cause and effect and then believing in those connections.

When things are complex there are no simple cause-and-effect relationships. We may miss the complex interactions occurring if we believe them to be there.

To create our simple stories, we pick and choose the data we remember, and we add in little bits of data if it makes for a better case…You look for patterns from the past that you project into the future, if you can’t find enough data, you make it up; and then you believe that you know what’s going to happen next in your story.

Human minds are always trying to make predictions, and we will even when it means inventing data.

We create simple characters and select data to support our beliefs.

We are quick to form opinions about others based on limited experience, and once that opinion is formed we will continue to cherry-pick data to reinforce our opinion. This is known as the Halo effect.

(More on all these biases can be found in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.)

So how do you break out of this habit? Garvery Berger offers a question and a habit.

Key Question: How is this person a hero?

Key Habit: Carry three different stories.


Our experience of rightness kills curiosity and openness to data that proves us wrong.

When we are convinced we know the answer it is if we have blinders on as we can’t see anything that doesn’t conform to our belief.

How do you get out of this mindtrap? Garvery Berger offers a question to ask and a move to make.

Key questions: What do I believe and how could I be wrong?

Key move: Listening to learn

Listening to learn requires that we watch our assumption that we are right (and we can either make the problem go away by winning or make it go away by fixing) and instead believe that the other person has something to say that we don’t understand and therefore can’t immediately help or make the problem go away.


When it comes to agreement on teams there are three potential traps.

We believe that agreeability is a virtue.

We focus too much on getting along and not enough on having constructive disagreements.

We believe that our disagreement should be fixed with a compromise.

When we do disagree we tend to seek out a compromise. And I imagine everyone is thinking, what is wrong with that? In complex situations, having more approaches is better than fewer.

The urge to compromise in complexity takes you from two viable options to one potentially mediocre one.

When we cannot compromise we polarize.

A failure to compromise can very quickly lead to opposing positions.

How can we manage these mindtraps?

Key Question: Could this conflict serve to deepen a relationship?

It is tempting to see conflict as destroying or hurting relationships, but healthy conflict can very much serve to support and deepen them.

Key Habit: Disagree to expand.

The point is that in complex, fast-changing situations, we will note ever be able to agree on the one best thing, because that simply doesn’t exist…Instead, we need to work to remember that complex situations have so many pieces and perspectives that each one of us might see a slightly different set of possibilities. And even those with bewilderingly different (and seemingly wrong) perspectives are giving voice to something in the complex system that we probably need to pay attention to.


We believe that being in control is critical to our success and happiness

This is true of us as individuals and is an even larger danger as a leader. We think that we need to control every aspect of the work for it to succeed.

When we can’t control big things, we substitute smaller ones

When we create goals and targets based on what we can see and measure rather than thinking about what progress looks like in the big picture, we often fall into this trap. I find the setting of KRs in the OKR process can easily fall into this trap as we take a highly ambitious and complex plan and turn it into a simplistic metric.

If things seem out of control, we blame ourselves or others

There is no direct and singular cause in complex situations, but when things seem out of control we often search for one in ourselves or those around us instead of understanding the complex system at work.

Instead of craving control, in complexity we have to shift to thinking about influence.

How can we do that?

Key question: What can I help enable? What could enable me?

Garvery Berger pushes us to stop thinking from the perspective of control and instead think from the perspective of influence to see what we can make possible rather than trying to force things to happen.

Key habit: Experimentation at the edges

The idea here is that the center of an issue is likely to be the hardest to change, but making changes around the edges can help shift the system.


We believe we have changed much in the past but won’t change in the future

It is easy to look at who you were ten years ago and say. I am not the same person anymore. But when we think about ourselves in ten years it is much harder to appreciate how much we will change.

Because so many of us don’t think of ourselves as growing and changing into the future, we invest our energy into protecting the person we have become rather than growing into the person we might become next.

As a result:

We protect and defend the identity we have rather than open to new possibilities

Key Question: Who do I want to be next?

If we can realize that we are not static, we can think about not only what we want to do differently but who we want to be that is different. In my work as a coach, this is often the focus, as what we do and who we are is linked.

Key Move: Listen to learn from yourself.

Garvery Berger goes on to share four questions you can ask yourself to learn the patterns of how you are.

What is at stake for me here?

What is the hardest part about this?

What is the best part about this?

How do I know this is true?

Sign up to get site updates

formerly Keith Corbin Coaching

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.