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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Apr 10, 2020


It turns out we prefer to be comfortably uninformed. This week we look at four steps to push ourselves through short-term pain to gather the information we need to take action.



Hello and welcome to episode 73 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. It turns out we prefer to be comfortably uninformed. This week we look at four steps to push ourselves through short-term pain to gather the information we need to take action.

We are wired to avoid pain whenever possible. By way of example, I’ve mentioned before that I go for a run most mornings. The first ten strides down our driveway are always painful. Not necessarily physically painful, but it doesn’t feel particularly nice to start out. I’m conscious of the cold weather, how comfortable my bed was, some discomfort in my knees, the tightness in my leg muscles. But I know that one minute in to the run I will feel better. And at the end of the run I always feel great. In fact, I always feel better on the days when I go for a run in the morning, than on the days when I choose to sleep in. If I focused on avoiding short term pain, I would never go for a run. The start always feels hard and awkward. The key to getting out of bed and going for a run for me is to remember how much better I feel at the end, and remind myself that the pain and discomfort pass quickly when I continue to take strides forward.

It turns out this same tendency to avoid short term pain occurs in every sphere of our lives, including the extent to which we seek out additional information and stay informed. Research recently published in Management Science shows that when we think additional information may be painful in the short term, we avoid being informed. We do this even if it means we can’t make as good a decision or plan for the long term. So when a doctor asks us to call them back to provide additional information on some tests, our natural tendency will often be to delay that call. When we’re faced with financial challenges, we might avoid doing further research. Or when I’m sent a set of participant evaluations from a leadership program I facilitated, I might leave it to the next day to open it just in case someone had something negative to say.

We routinely trade off the benefit of making better long-term decisions in order to avoid short-term pain. It also turns out that those who are impatient are even more likely to avoid information. The focus becomes entirely short term, often to our own detriment. The end result is that we remain comfortable, but comfortably uninformed.

So how do we avoid becoming comfortably uninformed? Here are four steps you can take:

  1. Recognise the human tendency to avoid short-term pain. Awareness is the starting point.

  2. Know when it’s happening to you in the moment. Once you’re aware of the tendency to avoid short term pain you will start to notice when it happens. See that as a prompt to do more research.

  3. Think of your future self as a real person. This will help you to pass through the short-term pain and pay it forward to your future self.

  4. Broaden your sources of information. Talk it through with others to gather their perspectives and recommendations.

If we take these four steps, we will be in a much better position to make informed decisions and take action.

I hope you, your family and your colleagues are travelling okay through these really challenging times. Stay well, stay informed, and stay optimistic. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.



Emily H. Ho, David Hagmann, George Loewenstein. Measuring Information PreferencesManagement Science, 2020