As a Leader, You Don’t See Most Behavior

“You are who you be” is a phrase that crosses my mind nearly 1x per day. It reminds me that I am what I do – my actions determine who I am. The last word, “be”, is a subtle reminder that consistent behaviors are the inputs that ultimately determine the success or failure of longer range ambitions.

Great leaders know that setting a vision and clear goals are only pieces of the success puzzle. Behaviors of team members are the dozens of other pieces. One such behavior is using a Context Slide at the beginning of a meeting to align intentions and expectations. In order to craft the culture that will facilitate longer range ambitions, organizations want to make the input behaviors automatic.

As the leader of your team, you’ve laid out a clear vision and clear goals as well as explained to the team why a Context Slide matters. You lead by example – you start your meetings with a thoughtful slide that says “Context, Why Are We Meeting?” Is that enough? As a single person, you only see a fraction of the behaviors happening – this is true even for small companies. How can you see without seeing?

Start by collecting some data. You go to 10 meetings and observe that at 9/10 meetings, a Context Slide is used. Is the team on the right track?

It feels like it. However, the answer is maybe.

Seeing without seeing is statistics. That’s inference. You have part of the picture, but not all of it. Your intuition about the world plus your observed data helps you craft a probabilistic picture of what’s actually happening where you can’t see. 

Like we all do, the leader starts with intuition. The leader thinks, “90% of the time I’m seeing strong & positive indications of behavior change. I think these behaviors are taking hold, but honestly I’m not sure. Maybe what I observed is a very unrepresentative set of events.” That’s a realistic, yet optimistic, perspective. It’s a good starting point.

Let’s help this leader firm up what they can’t see by mathematically combining their intuition and observed data to create a spectrum of possibilities.

Some leaders are too optimistic. A starting assumption where you believe the behavior is occurring >85% of the time is one such overly-optimistic starting point. They just want some numbers to confirm what they already believe. However, this leader is more realistic and their intuition was more skeptical saying that they think Context Slides are being used at least 50% of the time. That’s the starting intuition. The data component is the observed 9/10 instances where the behavior was happening. Combining the two using the binomial distribution and bayesian updating, we can see the range of possibilities below*.

Effectively, the red zone indicates the density of possibilities where the behavior is happening less than 90% of the time and the green zone indicates possibilities where the behavior is happening greater than 90% of the time. In the top, super optimistic view, the median possibility is 90% meaning your best guess is that the behavior, overall, is occurring 90% of the time with a narrow range. In the bottom, cautious and realistic view, the median possibility is 84% with a wide range. 

Needless to say, the skeptical leader shouldn’t be calling his 9/10 observational data a victory just yet.  

Wow. Talk about a data-driven leader 🙂

Even with this spectacular observed data, the leader remains skeptical about behaviors taking hold. What might change their mind?

  1. More Data. If the leader attended 100 meetings and saw the behaviors demonstrated at 90 of them. It is still 90% but the increased number of instances will reduce the level of uncertainty and bring the median possibility from wide-range 84% to a much narrower-range 90%. This would reduce the uncertainty, but 100 meetings! That sounds exhausting.
  2. Better Informed Intuition. It’s good to be skeptical, but maybe prior to the data collection exercise the leader got feedback from a DR or saw a Context Slide mentioned in a Slack channel. If going into the exercise the leader’s prior expectation was high – at 3/4 rather than 2/4 – we can redo the math and your median possibility goes up from wide-range 84% to a narrower-range 85%. This would reduce the uncertainty, but it depends on serendipity of information flow. 

With this perspective, the Leader can start to root cause the situation. They start with questions. Are the behaviors too cumbersome? Does the team not believe in them? The leader can also take the inverse approach and ask about what is going well, what value are the people getting from the new behaviors when they try it out? In order to understand what’s derailing the culture you and your team need in order to accomplish that grand vision, you’ll need to ponder these questions in a way that facilitates connection, reflection, and active listening.


*The code & math for the updating is here.