4 Techniques for Dispelling Hamster-Thinking at the Helm – Douglas Kruger

For a number of years now, I’ve spoken to gatherings about a mind-space epidemic that quells corporate achievement: Hamster Thinking. Every organisation has its hamsters. These are people who operate entirely by prompt ‘n nudge guidelines, and never develop personal initiative.
Hamsters can be identified according to their use of ‘The Rules of Hamster Thinking,’ which are:
– They make up rules that work against them;
– They do things the way they’ve always been done; and
– They do what all other hamsters would do.

If you could peel open the cranium of an employee-level hamster, then listen to the thought-processes within, you might hear something like this:

“If you don’t tell me what to do, I won’t do anything. If you haven’t told me it might happen, I can’t anticipate it. If you don’t give me guidelines to fix it, it stays broken, and if you don’t make my life better for me, it simply remains the same…”

Hamsters are not go-getters.
But not all hamsters populate the lower rungs of the corporate organogram. Sometimes, we also find hamsters at the helm.

What happens when hamsters run the show?

The simple answer is: It becomes harder to get anything done. Why? Because under the stewardship of hamsters, Drive and Initiative give way to Rules and Systems.
A colleague and I recently wrote a book on leadership, titled ‘So You’re in Charge. Now What?’ During writing, we identified a form of hamster-thinking that is endemic to leaders, and it is this:

Hamsters at the helm are just too busy spinning

Consider: At its start-up phase, a business requires vision, drive and initiative. But once it’s up and running, we tend to manage rather than lead. Managing implies a safety-oriented baby-sitting of the status-quo. Leadership, of course, means moving forward. During the safety phase, we fall back on systems, and consequently, we fall short on goals. And so are birthed the hamsters of the upper echelon.
They do not value creativity. A new idea or initiative only smacks of extra work to them.
Of course, it’s understandable that people at the helm should be distracted, preoccupied and pressed for time; of course it’s busy at the top! But when visionary behaviour is actually a part of your job-description, expelling the hamsters should become a priority.
Here are four suggestions on how to remain hamster-free at the helm:
1. Don’t schedule reactively

Staff meetings show (and often show up) the level of initiative in an organisation. Most are designed to ‘cover existing issues.’ That’s already a problem. Consider: the very orientation is reactive and places emphasis on ‘dealing with what is,’ or otherwise stated: ‘coping.’

As a leader, are you scheduling time for new business, new ideas, new initiatives on your agenda? And are you drawing new thinking from your staff? …Or is it easier to merely react to existing issues and…just get on with it?

2. Sift for gold in their pans full of pebbles

Imagine: You’re an hour and a half into the staff meeting, and most of the issues are dealt with. The pimply youth who’s been with the company for exactly two weeks sticks up his paw and eagerly declares, “I have an idea!”

Because you are well-versed in the running of the organisation, you can immediately spot sixteen problems with his shaky proposal. And that’s fine. That’s called experience.

But are you strategic enough to manage your own reaction when he offers an essentially good, but poorly expressed idea? Do you have the level of creative enquiry to ask, “Even though it may not be well formulated, is there merit in the core idea? Is there something there?”

In other words, do you dismiss suggestions because they are genuinely poor ideas, or simply because sifting for real value sounds like work? Hamster-free visionaries choose to sift for gold in a pan of river pebbles.

3. Switch on your radar, rather than your defences

Leaders are often overwhelmed. There’s just so much to think about. And that’s why we tend to build up our defences. We create ways of blocking out input.

Creative thinkers, entrepreneurs and visionaries do the opposite. They view it all with wonder. Their radar is perpetually tuned in to the stimulus around them, and they are always looking for opportunity.

This quality alone can determine the difference between a manager and a leader. When your radar is on, you are in ‘opportunity seeking’ mode. Opportunities acted upon become direction, and such is the stuff of leadership. Is your emphasis on radar, or defence?

4. At every intersection, use ‘…What if?’

When arriving at an intersection created by a problem or issue, our tendency is to get down to the ‘nuts ‘n bolts’ of solving it, at a technical level, very quickly.
To be truly hamster-free, hesitate for a moment. Don’t rush straight into implementation of the technical solution. Take a second to zoom back mentally and ask, “Is there anything more we can do with this? In a best case scenario, how could this look? Is there strategic leverage here? Putting our own constraints aside, and imagining a scenario without budgetary or manpower constraints, what could the best possible outcome look like?”

The hamster-free leader is not so focused on spinning the wheel that he forgets to look sideways. The hamster-free leader places greater emphasis on possibilities than on rules. Exorcise your own inner hamster, and your leadership style can become much more agile; your journey more exciting, and your bottom-line more champagne-worthy!
After all, no one follows a hamster. But leaders… Those are a different story.

Douglas Kruger is a professional speaker, trainer, and 5 x winner of the Southern African Championships for Public Speaking. He is the author of three books.

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