Ignorance Is Not Bliss: How Successful Business Leaders Deal With Information Overload
We usually think of information as an attractive resource -- an asset that curates opportunity and enriches our understanding of the world around us.
In business, acquiring new information can be exciting: Business leaders use it to become smarter, more agile and to make better decisions. Think, for example, about the benefits of leveraging insights from newly minted market trends and technological advances to achieve a competitive advantage. Information can illuminate the path to success and in some cases, pave it completely.
However, when otherwise “useful information” is perceived as painful, contrary to our tightly held beliefs, or requiring unwanted action, it can instantly become less attractive, and morph into an unwanted resource that is shunned. This phenomenon is known as “information avoidance” and defined as “any behavior designed to prevent or delay the acquisition of available but potentially unwanted information,” according to an article by the American Psychological Association.
If you find yourself waging a poignant tug-of-war with information avoidance, consider the following strategies as you work to confront it.
Become a lifelong learner consuming new information daily.
According to an estimate based on UNESCO statistics, approximately 171,000 books were published worldwide in the first 24 days of 2018, which means that humanity is on pace to publish about 2.6 million new titles this year. If you were to read one book a day for the entire year -- no small feat -- you will have consumed only 0.014 percent of that published information. And when you add in all the news, journal and magazine articles; the radio, television and internet news stories; the email newsletters, blogs and social media posts -- the amount of material produced every day boggles the mind.
Here’s how to leverage these infinite resources and cut through the noise: Reach for fresh, pertinent information on a daily basis. However, not just any information. Make sure that what you consume specifically advances your understanding of your industry and adds value to your work. Relevant information is powerful, and if you’re acquiring it both regularly and strategically, you’ll have a competitive advantage.
To be sure, lifelong learning also addresses the myth that terminal degrees, certifications and other finite learning experiences serve as the “be-all and end-all” for long-term business success. While it's good to know what everyone else knows, it’s far better to carve out a compelling niche that creates continuous, unmatched value in your thought leadership.
Seek constructive criticism from mentors without becoming defensive.
Pretending to “know it all” just because you have an above-average understanding of something can be dangerous. The truth is that no matter how brilliant you may be, what you know fills your head while what you don’t know fills the universe. One of the ways that we justify information avoidance is by convincing ourselves that we know everything worth knowing about a subject. Don’t fool yourself. No matter how well-informed you may be, there is always an opportunity to learn more and correct erroneous thinking.
That said, put your ego aside and challenge yourself to deal with information that does not reinforce your own opinions, such as feedback from a trusted advisor. Too often we put ourselves into “information bubbles” populated by people who think exactly as we think, and we ignore voices from those who operate outside our bubbles. We discount science that doesn’t comport with our worldview. We shun facts that might compel us to change our minds. And we do so because we don’t like admitting that we might be wrong.
You can easily avoid this conundrum by seeking the advice of individuals whom you trust and who will give you honest and valuable feedback. It takes courage, humility and hard work to embrace constructive criticism. However, if you’re eager for a deeper understanding of yourself, your profession, and the world around you, remember that feedback from a trusted advisor can only enhance your perspectives and indeed, your overall performance, which is exactly the point.
Act on new information with a sense of urgency.
Even when you decide to accept information and use it to your advantage, you must still, nevertheless, act on it. Make the call. Send the report. Schedule the meeting. Change the policy. Do whatever it takes and refuse to dillydally. The longer you reside in your head, the greater likelihood of you being lulled into inaction. Sometimes time is of the essence and undue delays can result in disaster.
It’s one thing to skip an article about a celebrity whose politics you can’t stomach; it’s another thing altogether to ignore a CBO report that details the deadly consequences of a new law that will have an immediate, chilling effect on your industry. Avoiding certain information and the required follow-up, means that real people may suffer. Don’t shirk your responsibility by dragging your feet simply because you’re afraid of change.
A useful concept to remember when you start to capitulate is to “Eat the Frog.” When used in business, it means to deal with the most challenging task first. It helps to build momentum and creates a strong sense of accomplishment in the early phases of a task's lifecycle. Once you discover useful information and understand how to apply it, simply step forward and execute. The more you become familiar with this process, the greater your capacity to take the necessary action without equivocation. Moreover, acting with a sense of urgency conveys valuable benefits to all stakeholders.
The world is full of information that could potentially open new doors for you and for your organization. Embracing it can help you become more competitive in the global marketplace, but it can be hard to know where to start and easy to make mistakes that can limit your growth. Don’t let your pride put deadbolts on those doors. Welcome new opportunities to learn, grow and add value with enthusiasm by viewing the acquisition of new information as an asset, rather than a liability.