Get Smarter About Thinking Clearly with Elizabeth Thornton | Podcast

Thornton, ElizabethHave you ever over-reacted to a situation? Do you sometimes take things personally that really are not meant that way? Have you ever misinterpreted the tone in an email and then responded with “tone?” How often do you judge other people unfairly?

We all do this. It is the nature of the mind, but sometimes this inherent subjectivity can get in our way and create difficult consequences. To be happy, effective, and successful today requires greater objectivity: seeing and accepting things as they are without projecting our mental models, fears, background and experiences and responding thoughtfully, deliberately and effectively to the opportunities and challenges of our lives.

To start thinking more successfully today, listen to this 30-minute recording of Elizabeth Thornton’s teleclass, “Get Smarter About Thinking Clearly” or read the complete transcript below.



View Transcript

Conferences for Women
Get Smarter About Thinking Clearly
Guest: Elizabeth Thornton
Interviewer: Karen Breslau

Karen: Welcome to Conference for Women teleclass, “Get Smarter About Thinking Clearly.” Our guest today is Elizabeth Thornton, author and professor, whose life’s passion and purpose is to help people transform their lives and their organizations with the power of seeing things as they are. Her first book, “The Objective Leader” had a leveraged power of seeing things as they are, based on a curriculum she developed and teaches to graduate students, entrepreneurs, and corporate executives as a Professor of Management Practice with Babson Executive Education and at Babson College. We’ll be sharing highlight from today’s call on Twitter. You can follow along and join the conversation @PennWomen, @TexasWomen, @MassWomen and in California, #leadonca.

Today’s teleclass has a visual component which Elizabeth will tell you more about and you can follow along on her slides that you received when you registered. Elizabeth Thornton, welcome to the Conference for Women teleclass.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much. I am delighted to be here. So for the women in the audience, I just want to let you know that I have provided some PowerPoint slides to just guide the presentation. But I’m going to go through them very quickly. Most of them are just visual, just kind of placeholders. So what I’ll do as I go along is I’ll just hit ‘next’, I’ll just say “next” so that you can advance the slide. So don’t be surprised, I’m going to go through them very quickly. So your goal is not to read the slides, but just kind of hang in there with me just so you know the area that we’re talking about.

So with that, I am delighted. Let’s just jump right in and get started. So the first thing I want to do is ask you a couple questions, and I want you guys through the next 20 minutes or so to be honest. Okay? So the first question is, have you ever overreacted to a situation? Now, I hope some of you are giggling and saying “of course.” How about this, have you ever taken something personally that really wasn’t personal? Oh you know what, I just think that’s so embarrassing when I do that. Have you ever judged someone unfairly? Yeah, I’m sure you have. What about this one, have you ever gotten an email and you perceived tone in the email? And what do you normally do?

Some people tell me that they respond with tone and they get themselves in all kinds of trouble. This is what we do. Sometimes it can cost a lot. So here is an extreme example of what I call extreme example of subjectivity. So Jim and Scott have been working… Jim has been with an organization for about nine months, he’s considered on the fast track. Everyone thinks he’s what we call a high potential performer. And every morning his boss comes to his office, Scott is his boss, comes to office, walks by his desk and says “good morning Jim.” And Jim thinks this is just the most wonderful thing.

So then one day, one morning around 7:30 when Scott normally would come in, he comes in and he doesn’t say a word. Now, what is Jim thinking? Jim’s spinning in his mind, oh my god, what did I do wrong, oh my god, I heard there are going to layoffs, oh you know, I’ve only been at the company for a short period of time. I’m going to lose my job. Oh god, if I lose my job, my wife is going to leave me, I’m not going to be able to buy her that coat, I can’t send my kids to school. He starts spinning in his mind of all this negative thinking. Sound familiar?

And so he runs into Scott’s office. Now advance the slide. He runs into Scott’s office and says “Hi, are they going to lay off… is something wrong? Am I on the list? Am I going to lose my job?” And Scott looks at him like “what is really going on here? What are you thinking?” So the key here is… you know, I’m hoping that some of you hear this and say “well you know, that sounds a little extreme.” But I guess some of you will say “yeah, I can think of someone who might do that.”

So what’s the real thing? What’s one thing that’s actually happened here? What’s the one thing? The one thing that actually happened is that Scott walked by Jim’s desk and did not say hello. Period, end of story. Everything else Jim made up in his mind. He assumed what was going on in his mind was actually true and he acted as if it was true. Now this is what we do. Now that’s an extreme case. Advance the slide.

Subjectivity, this is what we came to do. We experience through our sense, a person, a situation, or an event. And in an instant, it only takes a second, we project our fears, our mental models, our backgrounds, our past experiences onto whatever that is. Next slide. And the result is a misconception. When one object is exaggerated for another, blows things way out of proportion. Next slide. These are called cognitive errors. And the impact of this can be significant.

For example… filtering for example, only looking at the negative aspects of a situation and magnifying and filtering everything else out. A lot of us do that, just look at the work side of things. The over generalization, selective attention, only looking at a small piece of the data, polarizing thinking, either black or white. These are common cognitive errors. The challenge for us as leaders, especially as women leaders is that when the pressure to perform is intensified in our organizations, we tend to commit more cognitive errors.

The interesting thing is that the difference between effective leaders and ineffective leaders I should say, is the ability for that leader to increase their objectivity and to reduce cognitive errors when it counts. So when we talk about learning to be smarter about thinking clearly, we’re talking about reducing our cognitive errors, increasing our objectivity and decreasing all the things that we project on what’s going on and try to see things more clearly.

So the next slide just talks about the need, why it’s so important for us as women leaders to be more objective. And the reality is, things are just heating up. The pace is faster, things are just… it’s just so fast. Technology is speeding things up. There’s massive amounts of data to analyze. You know, it’s still gender biased in the workplace, I mean we still know that exists. There’s a high level of stress I think we experience, some of us are trying to balance… that work-life balance concept, the expectations seem greater because there’s a lot of pressure in workplace today.

And as I said, next slide, and having subjectivity is so much so that when things get really, really heated, when we’re under pressure, where we’re under a lot of stress, we tend to draw on our past experiences and underlying assumptions, that they’ll often cloud our ability to see things clearly in the present moment and it impedes our ability to respond to changing dynamics in an unbiased or objective manner.

And the problem is, it can cost so much. We can miss deadlines. Next slide. We can miss deadlines, emerging market opportunities, relationships with stakeholders, our reputations can suffer, health and wellbeing. You know what, I did a recent women’s seminar on this and a woman raised her hand and she said, “You know what, I was just spinning in my mind so much, I couldn’t sleep all weekend long because I was so concerned about what I had done.” And so she’s lost sleep, she spinning in her mind, how many of you guys spin in your mind at night thinking about all the things that you could have done differently.

This is what we do. This is our inherent subjectivity. For us to be effective, we have to learn to do that a little bit less. And it’s not just us. For those of you who are managing teams, have you noticed sometimes that your teams don’t collaborate effectively? They’re not really listening to each other. This lack of objectivity impacts our ability to collaborate effectively as teams, and for our team to come up with innovative and entrepreneurial solutions.

So I’m hoping by now that you are kind of convinced, well this… an increase in my objectivity is a good thing. So the next slide just talks about a simple definition of objectivity. So what I want to go to is one more slide ahead, is really the difference between effective leaders and ineffective, really it’s about our ability to reduce cognitive errors and to respond appropriately and objectively when it counts. Objectivity is about the ability to question our underlying assumptions when judging situations, making decisions, and taking action.

Objectivity is the path into… to identify ad transform limiting and unproductive mental models. And it’s also the ability to understand another person’s point of view and incorporate diverse perspectives in decision making… problem solving and decision making. So the next slide just kind of says, well you know we’ve been talking about this objectivity for a long time and the philosophers have been debating it for a long time. But in the context of what we’re trying to accomplish this afternoon, I really want you to think about a philosophical question. So flip to the next slide which is a slide of [unintelligible 00:09:18].

So what do you think is more objective? It is therefore I see, or I see therefore it is. So the it is therefore I see is like the pothole. Whether I see that thing or not… all the snow in New England, there’s so many potholes around. So whether I see it or not, I have an experience with that pothole. That’s objective reality. It is therefore I see. But the I see therefore it is, that’s all the things that we project onto what’s going on.

In our example of Jim and Scott, Jim made up everything about layoffs and losing his job and losing his family and he was spinning in his mind about a thought that that’s what is in response as if it was actually true. So in order for us to increase our objectivity, our job is to reduce the I see therefore it is. All the things that we project onto things, to be able to really understand how we are framing our world, a lens through which we are making decisions and we’re taking action.

So in order to do this, it requires a couple of things. One is to understand the subject-object relationship, the next is a little bit about how the mind works, and it’s also about subjectivity, drivers, the things that color our response and hinder our ability to see things as they are. So everyone say I. You don’t have to say this next part. I am the subject. Everything that I experience through my senses is an object of my awareness and therefore not me. Does that make sense? I am the subject, everything that I experience through my senses is an object of my awareness and therefore not me.

So all of you are the subject, and this telecast is an object of your awareness. My voice and these slides is an object of your awareness and therefore not you. Now just put a pin in that for a second. We’re going to come by to that. But that logic is really fundamental to understanding our capacity to be more objective. Okay, so just again, put a pin in that. So the next thing I want you to [unintelligible 00:11:32] is just talk really briefly about the brain. So the brain is a pattern making organism. From the time we are three years old, three or four years old, we are making assumptions and conclusions and associations and connections about everything we are experiencing.

We’re making judgments about everything, about people that we meet, about our mother, our father, the kitchen, the stove, I mean everything we are experiencing we’re saying “oh I like this, I don’t like this.” I’m making a judgment about it and every time I do that, it gets hardwired in my neural net, right. And so we are constantly making connections, [unintelligible 00:12:08] old connections, making new connections in our neural net based on our experiences, moment to moment, thought to thought, fear by fear, emotion by emotion, we are constructing our neural net.

The interesting thing is what is wired together in our neural net is [unintelligible 00:12:23] together in our neural net. So that’s a very interesting point about objectivity. So when we are… when we react automatically, and we’re like why do I always do that, why do I always get myself in trouble with that same situation? It’s because your assumptions and your conclusions and your mental models about your role in that situation and what that situation should be has been hard wired in your neural net.

But the great news is, is through our advances and our understanding of the brain, we have the capacity to identify those mental models and what’s wired in our neural net, to interrupt our automatic behavior and to actually rewire our neural net so we’re responding more objectively in the moment. We have that capacity. And that’s what we talk about, rethinking the way we think. We can actually go back and say “do I really still believe that this is true? Because this is the way I want to frame my world as a leader. Is this how I want to approach leadership or motherhood or any role I play?” We have the power to do that.

So I want to go ahead now and I want to go to the next slide and just talk briefly about two aspects of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is where we analyze things, that’s where all our executive function takes place. You know, our ability to plan, to establish our calendar, to set appointments, to prioritize, all of that is happening at the prefrontal cortex. It’s very energy intensive. When something new comes along, our prefrontal cortex takes that over and analyzes it, repairs it with old data, it helps us make assumptions and draw conclusions about it.

But once we have already determined how it works, then it gets pushed down to a part of our brain called the basal ganglia. That’s where our automatic responses and thoughts take place. So if you just think about it for just a second, how much of what you do every single day, from the time you get up in the morning to the time you get back home at night is automatic? I bet you don’t even think about a lot of it. You just do it. I mean even at work. You set your meetings, you read your emails, how you collaborate with your colleagues, how you behave in meetings, how you speak to your boss, you know, how you handle a new project, assignment.

All this has become pretty much routine because that’s the part of the brain that’s operating when things become routine. So the question for us as leaders is how much of what we are doing every day is automatic and does it serve us well? And if not, how can I rethink that and maybe do that differently so that it serves me better and I can be a more objective and effective leader.

Okay. So the nature of the mind is to compare and contrast, it’s one of the amazing things that the mind does is create mental models. We’ll talk about that in a minute. And onto the next slide. These mental models are one of what I call drivers of subjectivity. So things that we project onto what is and makes us not see things as clearly. So let’s just start off with the first one. So the first one is about mental models. Mental models are deep rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world is, the way it ought to be.

We have a mental model for every single role we play, right, as a mother, as a sister, as a daughter, as a leader, we have an idea, a mental model for every role that we play. The interesting things that mental models are so powerful that they become the basis for our perception and analysis. I remember shopping for a car many years ago and my brother told me to get a certain car. And I looked at it online, thought it was beautiful, I loved it. It was a Lincoln LS, it was silver interior, silver exterior. I’m like uh okay, I’m not going to get this car today.

But all of a sudden, everywhere I go, guess what I see? A Lincoln LS, silver interior. Now did I magically create all those cars? No. What my mind is bringing me exactly what I had determined is important. That’s the power of mental models. And again, as I said, we have mental models for everything. Go to the next slide. We have mental models for… And we societal mental models about the roles of women. Did you know in order for a guy to be a real man, he has to be able to fix everything? What about societal mental models about women? A lot of us struggle with that.

We struggle with what we should be as a mother, as a career person, how do we balance all that against what society expects and societal mental models really do influence our mental models. But at the end of the day, we get to frame our world and we get to choose, and that’s key to being an objective leader. The next slide really just is about, you know, you have a leadership mental model about how you want to operate in the workplace.

The question for you as you become a more objective leader and you start rethinking the way you think is for you to say, hmm are my assumptions really serving me well? The leadership mental models that I have in place, are there consistent with my objectives and are they allowing me to achieve the success that I want for myself? It’s your analysis, your identification, your analysis and you have the opportunity to transform it if it does not serve you well.

So one of the things that I have learned in my research, and I’ve been teaching this [unintelligible 00:17:58] since 2008, and in my research, I’ve learned that there’s quite a few common mental models. One is the validation seeker, I need others to like me because I’m smart. The competitive warrior, I have to be better at something with someone… better at something in order to feel good about myself. The perfectionist overachiever, I have to be perfect in everything I do, and I know there’s perfectionists out there, I wish I could see hands raised.

And then there’s the controller, I must be able to control my environment, my self confidence is based on my ability to control people, circumstances and events. How many of you guys will admit out there that you kind of like to be able to do things your way, right. Does that cause you to be a micromanager perhaps? Just something to think about, but these are common mental models that you might want to look at to see if this is reflective of you at all or resonates with you at all, and say “huh, how does that play out for me? Do I want to rethink the way I respond to being a perfectionist, about being control ” [Audio break 00:19:06]

Okay, so the next slide is about fears. We all know that it’s very difficult to be objective when we’re afraid, so it’s really important to understand that fear is another thing that can color our response to what’s actually going on. The next slide is about thoughts. Are you your thoughts? It’s a funny question. The question is, are you your 2:30 thought or your 3:30 thought or are you the last thoughts that you have when you go to sleep? The reality is you are not your thoughts. Remember our subject object [unintelligible 00:19:48] that we talked about a little bit earlier?

If you are aware of your thoughts, then your thoughts are an object of your awareness and therefore it’s not you. And what that means is anything that you experience, anything that’s an object of your awareness, you as the subject, can choose your response to it. Right? And so you can choose those negative thoughts that run through our heads and a lot of people will admit that some of their thoughts are very judgmental. Sometimes they’re very, very negative.

And so it’s very important to be able to know that you can choose between that thought that says I’m not going to be successful and that people will undermine me, or I can choose to say that I can collaborate effectively and I can achieve my goals. Those two different thoughts can come through your mind at any point in time, right. And at the end of the day, you get to choose because you are the subject. You have the power to change your mind. It’s about you rethinking the way you think.

Okay. So the next slide is… Based on the fact that we all have such negative and harmful thoughts sometimes, one of the fundamental mental models that I’ve learned through my research is that there’s a mental model of I’m just not good enough. I’m not acceptable to myself and that really has an impact on our ability to be successful in the workplace. The next slide is about the power of thought, the reality is you get to choose your thoughts. You get to choose. So we’re talking here about objects of subjectivity, mental models, we talked about fear, talked about thought. The next slide is about unconscious bias, unconscious attitudes of biases that we formed when we were four years old.

The research says that we have stereotypical attitudes about this from when we were four years old and we had absolutely no choice in the matter, which is why there’s really no shame or blame in having bias because it’s just like a mental model that got hardwired in your neural net without your conscious awareness that drives your response to what you experience. But now that you can bring that to conscious awareness, to your prefrontal cortex, again, you get to choose your response. You can be more objective to not only the situations that you confront each day, but to also the people that you interact with and confront each day that may be different than you.

So that’s the background. So to just make this actionable for you, the most important thing to be able to do is think about the framework for objectivity, that one aspect of it is about objective decision making. And there’s a little chart here that just takes you through the steps of analyzing and accepting the facts, identifying the mental models that may be operating ahead of time, evaluating your underlying assumptions, developing new ways of thinking, and then choosing an objective response. You can use that when you’re in a situation where you can spend some time and really think through what’s happening and how you want to arrive at a decision with you and your team.

The next aspect of the framework for objectivity is objectivity in the moment. There’s some times you don’t have time to think about it, right. There isn’t a lot of time, you don’t have the ability to sit down and analyze data, but something you have to respond in the moment. So how am I more objective in the moment? And the nest way to be objective in the moment is to be mindful, because most of us know when we are about to overreact. It feels like something.

For me, you know, it felt like butterflies in my stomach. And every time I had butterflies in my stomach, I knew that I might be responding less than objectively so I would always try to create that space, that distance so that I can move away and so that I could give myself the time to think about what was going on before I responded in a way that I later regretted. And the key to that is the next slide on mindfulness, and we can actually practice being more mindful.

Okay, so we’re covering a lot of ground, you guys. You’re getting about a seven week course in about 25 minutes. So the last thing I want to share with you is about managing teams. It’s really, really important as managing teams that you’ve got to believe, you’ve got to believe ladies that everyone that are sitting around the table is thinking about things differently than you are, because they frame their world differently. So as a leader, it’s really important for you to understand how they’re framing their world. And so as a leader, go around the table, okay we have this problem. When you first heard about the problem, what were some of the things that came to mind, what were some of your underlying assumptions? Get everyone to talk about that.

And then get everyone to have consensus about okay, this is how we’re going to pose this problem and everyone get on the same page, it’s really, really key. The skills involved with managing teams is objective inquiry to try to seek to understand the other person’s point of view. A skill called objective advocacy, when you as a leader are trying to advocate for a particular position or a particular idea, you want to be able to do that in an objective manner. There’s objective conflicts resolution when there’s an impasse. What kind of things do I say in order to resolve that impasse?

And also in managing teams, as I said, trying to establish almost an organizational or a team mental model, how the team is going to operate. What are the underlying assumptions of the team and how they’re going to collaborate effectively and objectively. And that’s a key role for object leaders today to be able to establish and develop team mental models to guide their engagement to be able to produce the most effective results and to maximize productivity.

So the last thing I want to share with you is that, again as I told you, once you know that you have mental models operating and that you can identify with those that are not serving you, you have the capacity to change your mind. It’s a process called transformational learning. And here are the steps for transformational learning: identifying your mental models, developing new mental models, and then rewiring your neural net for greater effectiveness with intension density, right.

So every single time you interrupt your automatic response, you feel that trigger and then you don’t automatically respond they way you normally do, every time you interrupt that response and you choose a different response, you’re actually loosening the connection in the neural net. And when you respond differently, you’re creating a new pathway in the neural net. And the more attention and focus you can put to interrupting those automatic responses and choosing a different response, the more power you have and the more ability you will have to be an objective leader.

So my closing slide is to help you remember that you are the subject. You frame your world through your mental models. Effective action and decision making happens in the moment, so be mindful and present. And one of the most important things that I learned about being objective is that accepting yourself is the first step in being objective. Because at the end of the day, the way we’re defining objectivity is the ability to see and to accept things as they are. And not projecting our fears, our mental models, and our backgrounds, but instead responding thoughtfully and deliberately and effectively to the challenges that we confront each day.

So I hope this was helpful. Thank you very much. If you look at that last slide, I just wanted you to be aware that she spoke about at the beginning, I just released a new book called “The Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things as they Are.” If you’re looking for more information, actually there’s a step by step guide how to identify and transform your mental models, it’s all there in the book. And I also actually share a story of how the whole path building with me when I lost a million dollars because of my lack of objectivity. So the book tells you that story and then takes you through a process of learning to be more objective. So thank you so much for your time.

Karen: Thank you Elizabeth Thornton. We have a few questions and just about a minute or two for questions. Let me ask you very quickly, first of all if you’d answer briefly. Are women more prone to subjective thinking that you’ve described than men are?

Elizabeth: No, absolutely not. My research says it’s about… it’s split right down the middle. And I know women think that we are more subjective and a lot of men think that we’re more emotional, it’s just not true. The only thing that’s different is the way we respond to it, it might be a little bit different, but the fact that we have cognitive errors, we take things personally, we overreact, I just don’t see any distinctions between men and women in terms of their cognitive errors.

Karen: Okay. One last question, and this comes from someone who wrote in and said “I learn best with working things manually on paper. So can you include a skill that can be done on paper to work through a day to day issue. For example, I may end up doing business with a group of people and I don’t like the way they’re portraying [unintelligible 00:29:10] the situation. How can I work this out on paper?”

Elizabeth: So that’s an excellent question. So the first thing that you have to do is describe the situation, right. So just write down the situation. The next thing is to write down what your thoughts are about the situation, how you feel about the situation and just really kind of get all that out. And then once you get all that out, you can then say the next it would be, well what are my underlying assumptions here? I’m thinking this, I’m feeling this, what am I assuming that’s causing me to respond that way.

And you might think that… the assumption might be that they’re not taking you seriously, the project isn’t well respected by the organization, no one really cares about it, there’s a whole litany of potential assumptions that she could be making. So then once she writes down the assumptions, then the next step is to write down what’s a different way of thinking about it? Because at the end of the day, we’re thinking one way, it’s colored by our assumptions, you can ask yourself well are my assumptions really true? How do I know with absolute certainty are my assumptions true? And then once you create that little doubt in your mind, write down okay what’s another way of thinking about it. What’s another way of approaching this situation? What’s another way of responding?

And that’s the process that’s called cognitive restructuring and it’s a part of a process called transformational learning, which is just really reflecting and writing down and challenging yourself to look at your thoughts, your beliefs, your assumptions, and challenging yourself to accept the possibility that you might not be seeing it clearly. Is it really, really true, and what’s another more objective way or better way of thinking about this situation. And then once you figure that out, how can I respond differently. Does that help?

Karen: It sure does. And that’s all we have time for today. Thanks to Elizabeth Thornton. For those of you California, we will look forward to seeing you at the Lead On Conference on February 24th in Silicon Valley. For more information, go to Thank you.