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Leaders, is Dogmatic Thinking Working Against You? These Seven Questions Have the Answer.

As a leadership coach, one of the most common development needs I see is people who cannot let go of rigid, formal thinking constructs, or what I call their “shoulds.” By this, I mean a person’s preconceived, fixed notions and opinions about how other people, decisions, processes, rules, behavior, etc. “should” be. Everyone has these to some degree, but they can have negative consequences.

Take this scenario for example. Joe, a senior sales leader, has a difference of opinion with Human Resources executive Barbara, about their employer’s new incentive program.

Joe declares, “If a recognition program doesn’t reward people with money, Barbara, it’s worthless.”

“You couldn’t be more wrong,” Barbara replies. “Making money isn’t the only reason people work.”

Joe shakes his head and sighs. “I can’t believe how naïve you are, Barbara. Everyone in HR is alike. None of you understand business.”

Barbara responds, “I can’t believe how cynical you are, Joe. You sales leaders think it’s all about money. You don’t understand what really motivates people to give their best.”

Have you heard — or engaged in — a similar exchange where you work? Two people all wrapped up in what they believe other people “should” think, and scornful of each other’s viewpoints? Happens a lot, doesn’t it? And sadly, it’s not only at work.

Your “Shoulds” are Dogmatic Thinking Constructs

Joe and Barbara’s interaction, and the thinking that underlies it, comes from our Systemic View of the World — meaning the way we think “things” (the world or people) “should” be. The ZERORISK Emotional Intelligence Assessment measures this aspect of our makeup using the Adherence & Organization Thinking Facet.

You can think of dogmatism (those troublesome “shoulds”) as arrogantly held opinions asserted as truths: a rigid mindset in which a person believes certain things are the way they are because “that’s how they should be.”

The dictionary says dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.

Having principles and believing in them, living them, is a good thing. That good thing starts to go south, however, around the word incontrovertibly. When people take the position that their view is incontestable, that’s a problem.

What Happens when Rigid Thinking Imposes “Shoulds”?

The result of rigid thinking is that these “shoulds” eventually turn into passions, and passions become prejudice. Intolerance is tolerated. Polarization prevails. Listening lessens. Voices are silenced. Hearts and minds close. Curiosity ceases. Flexibility vanishes. Learning stops. There’s no room for differences—because empathy is extinguished from our intrinsic view of the world.

No one tells themselves “I’m going to take this job, become dogmatic, and impose my ‘shoulds’ on everyone,” but sometimes people do just that without realizing it. Rigidity of thought and behavior are like thieves who come in the night to steal flexibility, growth, openness, empathy, and change.

Could This Be You?

When someone is trapped by dogmatism and their “shoulds” begin to dominate their thinking, they may suddenly find themselves arguing with everyone, amazed at how stupid people have become. They sneer at others’ inability to see the “truth.” They constantly defend their turf, incensed about what their boss, peers, and direct reports do or don’t do.

A couple years ago, in a coaching session with a banking CEO, he told me he’d walked into the breakroom and seen a half-eaten bagel on the floor next to the trashcan. He described how they have signs up about picking up after yourself, cleaning dishes, throwing things in the trash and keeping the room clean for the next person or group. He eventually said, “Can you believe I sat there for over an hour that morning to see if anyone came in and threw that bagel in the trash…and no one did?” I said to him, “I can’t believe the most expensive employee in the bank wasted an hour staring at a bagel on the ground.” Needless to say, the conversation quickly turned to letting go of his “shoulds.”

A 7-Question Self-Audit to Identify Dogmatism and Confront your “Shoulds”

If you’re concerned that your “shoulds” are working against you, do a self-audit by asking yourself these seven questions.

1. Is my communication style abrupt and dismissive?

People with strong “shoulds” believe it’s not worth their time to converse with people who have different views. These thinkers will change the topic, give curt answers, or selectively ignore the conversation. They may even lob insults, trivialize, or harshly criticize. They look away, smirk, roll their eyes, sigh, or interrupt. They’ll use disdainful hand gestures, and maybe even walk away.

2. Do I frequently feel irritated or frustrated when I encounter viewpoints that differ from my own?

Because dogmatic thinkers “know” they’re right, they want to impose their beliefs on others. When that proves impossible, feelings of anger and contempt follow, because they’re frustrated that these people refuse to see how misinformed and mistaken they are. People who think this way frequently use words like should, always, and never. When their expectations are unmet, they feel anger, frustration, and contempt.

3. Do I look for ways to prove that I’m never wrong?

People with strong “shoulds” pull themselves up by beating others down. They don’t make mistakes or errors of judgment — only “others” who are wrong do that. These thinkers know the truth, so they don't have to agonize over it. Nor will they compromise or move toward moderation.

4. Have I changed my circle of friends and work colleagues so that I only associate with those who share my beliefs?

People with strong “shoulds” are confident about their beliefs and cling to them even in the face of strong contradictory evidence; associating with people who think similarly is comforting as well as affirming.

5. Do I stop listening to people whose opinions differ from mine?

People with strong “shoulds” are focused on what they view as certainties. They’re interested in other people only as long as they support their image of rightness. These thinkers don’t see any way for someone who doesn’t share the same beliefs to make a good point, so they feel no need to listen to them.

6. Do I jump to conclusions based on how I see the world?

People with strong “shoulds” use an all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway approach to life. That includes decision-making and problem solving. If one solution to a problem clearly aligns with their perspective, they select that option and view time spent seeking alternative solutions as a waste of time.

7. Do I see the world in terms of black or white?

To people with strong “shoulds,” the world is simple and there are no shades of gray. People are either good or bad. Each person is either friend or foe; their position is either right or wrong. These thinkers don’t see complexity or nuance. In their worldview, there’s no such thing as a problem with two contradictory answers that are each right in different ways. There’s a simple category or label for everything and everyone.

What if You Recognize Yourself in these Questions?

Letting go of your “shoulds” is easier said than done, but it benefits everyone on a daily basis. Not everyone will see the world as you do, and that’s okay. These differences in views and perspectives help us to grow and innovate by showing us new things, choices, and opportunities.

Letting go of your “shoulds” can be an enlightening and pleasurable learning experience, because it helps us progress from Systemic Thinking (idealized, hardline thinking) to Extrinsic Thinking (practical solutions) and Intrinsic Thinking (empathy).

Letting go of your “shoulds” is challenging, but liberating. We carry a lot of unnecessary weight and stress as we impose our biases and views on others. I’ve yet to see anyone have their viewpoint changed by being yelled at, called names, or “outed.”

As you go forward and reevaluate your thinking day-to-day, work on the following three questions to help with specific situations:

  1. If I let go of this “should” that I’m imposing on someone, what’s the worst that will happen?

  2. Am I spending more time focusing on what I think others “should” be doing and how they “should” be acting and performing than on what I’m supposed to be doing? (If you answered yes, ask yourself, “What could I be doing that’s more productive?”)

  3. What’s a consistent “should” that I can work on letting go of?

And finally, always keep in mind that working with people is not a zero-sum game. Even though your “shoulds” aren’t always adopted by other people, it doesn’t mean you lost out.


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