Psychology Today: The Psychology of Complexity

Psychology Today: The Psychology of Complexity

By | April 27, 2022

How Executive Assessment and Development Can Shape the Future of Leadership

This article was co-authored by AIIR Head of Executive Assessment Dr. Derek Lusk and Reese Haydon, M.S. It originally appeared in Psychology Today.

Leadership is vastly consequential in human affairs and has been for thousands of years. Around 10,000 years ago, leadership was about command and control. Societies were hierarchical and tribal in kingdoms, chiefdoms, and so on. Leadership was about coordinating thousands of people around a central food source, usually spearheaded by a dictator.

Not until the 19th century did we start to outgrow leadership by dominance, with the Enlightenment in Europe creating a morality of science and objectivity. The inherent complexity of society has advanced along with technology, globalization, geopolitical tensions, macroeconomic tail and headwinds, and other interconnected dynamics. Today, leadership is transitioning from command-and-control leadership by dominance to leadership through science, rational thinking, and other aspects of human performance that allow leaders to navigate and influence massive systems in a whirlwind of complexity.

Evolved Thinking

But outgrowing the past is hard. Through evolution, humans became wired for tribalism and survival rather than navigating complexity. Most human thinking is automatic, “System 1” processing. This type of thinking is fast, autonomous, and necessary because we can’t slow down and reflect on every stimuli or input. Imagine if you had to re-examine a cat every time you saw one or plan your route to work before leaving the driveway. Automatic habits are useful and remain the majority of our processing with minimal cost—hence why Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day. Habits, routines, and automatic thinking are efficient.

In contrast, “System 2” is our reflective, deliberate mind that is used only when consciously activated because it requires effort. As we evolved, abstract thinking about what is true in the world provided no immediate advantage, so tribalism and superstition were the norms.

Today, this is less true. We are moving through a complex, multicultural world that requires rational thinking and close attention to others’ needs, intentions, values, and perspectives. The most successful leaders master the process of slowing down before speeding up. They engage System 2 thinking when System 1 tries to kick in, thus limiting automatic thinking in favor of rationality, active open-mindedness, and other-oriented humility. And, in doing so, they evolve us past tribalism, facilitate the integration of cultures, and lead organizations into a complex and multicultural future.

Who Are the Leaders of the Future?

The question, then, becomes: Who are the leaders of the future? Fortunately, we can answer this question with a data-driven executive assessment. First, business psychologists can evaluate rational thinking, defined as having an accurate representation of the world (epistemic rationality) and behaving in a way that achieves our goals (instrumental rationality). Here is a famous rational thinking question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Many of us answer $0.10 without overriding our reaction, thereby arriving at the incorrect answer. The correct answer is $0.05. The bat costs $1.05 and the ball $0.05, totaling $1.10. This is an example of miserly processing, or automatic thinking when getting it right takes overriding our first reaction. Other ways rational thinking is measured include seeing if a person can get an answer correct that goes against their beliefs, evaluating anti-science beliefs and superstitious thinking, and measuring an individual’s open-mindedness and need for cognitive complexity.

We can also evaluate one’s ability to “read others’ minds,” defined as how well one can forecast another’s intentions, beliefs, and emotions. These assessments evaluate three areas:

  1. A person’s ability to recognize emotions in others
  2. Their ability to imagine what someone else believes, intends, desires, or feels
  3. Their ability to choose the best course of action in complex social situations

There are three types of tests psychologists use to evaluate the ability to read minds: self-report questionnaires, short stories, and ability-based assessments that measure emotional recognition. Self-report questionnaires include items that evaluate behaviors like perspective seeking, such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”

Short stories provide the respondent with a 250-word story that describes a social interaction between several individuals and asks them to answer 15-20 questions about the character’s mindset and emotions. Finally, ability-based assessments show the respondent pictures of faces and ask them to correctly identify the person’s emotions. In other words, how good is the leader at understanding what someone is thinking and feeling based on their facial expressions?

Personality assessments can also be an excellent measure of our ability to thrive in ambiguity and complexity. For example, leaders who score high on measures of emotional stability, curiosity, openness, creativity, and learning are more comfortable in highly complex and ambiguous contexts. On the flip side, leaders who score high on emotional volatility, risk-aversion, and values for structure have a harder time leading through periods of significant complexity. Personality assessment is an excellent predictor of a person’s ability to lead teams through ambiguity, and it supplements cognitive tests when we evaluate the leadership of the future.

What does this mean for leaders and organizations today? It means that organizations should use scientific and proven assessments to develop effective leaders that can navigate change and shape a better future. While some leaders are predisposed to leading through uncertainty, these leadership skills and abilities can also be learned. The responsibility falls on HR executives, executive coaches, leadership consultants, and psychologists to accurately assess leaders, anticipate needed capabilities, and build leadership development journeys that prepare leaders for tomorrow.

About the co-author: Reese Haydon, M.S., is an executive talent and organizational development leader and consultant. He uses evidence-based practices and innovative approaches to help senior leaders and their teams operate at their best.

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