Catch Yourself before Slipping into Default

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I was recently engaged in a free-flowing dialogue with a company CEO involved in building a better business mind-set among his team members. While we were talking, the door to his office suddenly opened, and a direct report entered the CEO’s inner sanctum unannounced.

There was an obvious sense of urgency behind this interruption. Nevertheless, the CEO in question immediately pounced on his employee, who did not know what hit him or even why he was being hit.  After muttering something about actually being called to deliver an important report ASAP, the employee quickly departed in a confused state, with both ego and job satisfaction shattered.

An eerie silence followed this incident, which I left up to the CEO to break. It was obvious from his body language that he was feeling awkward after his sudden outburst. “I know I should not have done that,” he finally said. “I often lose my composure and I don’t know why. It just keeps happening.”

I remained silent, allowing the CEO to open up even more. For the next few minutes, a river of emotions flowed out of the man as he expressed regret and embarrassment over the undesirable ways that he frequently behaves at work. It was clear that this man hated losing control, but lost it often.

When done with his confession, the CEO asked, “Why does this keep happening to me?” I had already composed my thoughts on the leadership dilemma he faced. “You slip into a default that needs to be reset,” I responded.

The answer puzzled him, so I explained that people get subconsciously wired to respond to similar situations and stimuli in pre-set ways without realizing it. Simply put, with limited brain power at our disposal, we create standard operating procedures and habitual responses to keep mental bandwidth free to handle complex situations in a creative manner.

Subconsciously setting defaults, in my opinion, can’t be avoided. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it is often desirable to let a host of work happen via our mental autopilot. Otherwise, our brains would be sapped to death trying to meet daily responsibilities.

That said, it is not desirable to fall victim to one’s default settings, which happens when autopilot behaviours run counter to what we would do if we were controlled by our conscious mind. After all, when in default mode, people tend to ignore circumstances presented by reality.

The three common casualties of slipping into default are:

  1. Discretion – In default mode, people often see a pre-set alternate version of the truth, which can lead to unprofessional and offensive behaviour
  2. Objectivity – Seized by biases, people in default often lack the capability of fair judgment
  3. Moderation – People in default can act in an extreme manner that defies logic and reasoning

As a result, a default occurrence is often followed by a combination of guilt, shame and regret. Awareness of the issue can lead to self-loathing. But in many cases, people eventually become immune to the emotional aftershocks triggered by their bad behaviour.

Some destructive defaults remain unquestioned despite being based on unfounded assumptions that made them counterproductive from the start. Others are born out of necessity, but remain in use long after their shelf life because most people do not tinker with their autopilot settings. Consequently, people often operate with bad defaults that cloud judgement and derail progress. And these defaults become more and more entrenched with the passage of time.

People with too many bad defaults invariably become distant from their team, community and social circle. They become arrogant lone-wolves, cut off from objective feedback and constructive advice.

So how do we avoid slipping into the default trap? This is a question that has always fascinated me as a businessperson and as an executive coach. Observing many leaders who are good at managing their autopilot settings has led me to conjure the following helpful steps that make a big difference:

  • AWARENESS: Understanding that we all have defaults and the potential for unwanted actions leads to awareness, which then prompts reflection that can lead to corrective actions
  • ALWAYS BE ON THE LOOKOUT: We often just let ourselves go on autopilot. Thinking about this first can make a big difference to people who have faced the wrath of default settings
  • SEEK FEEDBACK: Create a network of trusted people empowered to provide feedback whenever they see you slip into a destructive default. This requires being willing to listen to things said about you that aren’t pleasant to hear
  • LOG DEFAULTS: Keep a record of your slippages into default to assist in the development of insights that can help you recognize triggers and avoid falling into autopilot mode
  • CHECK EXPIRY DATES: Nothing is relevant forever, so use your default log to rethink your standard operating procedures. For example, examine how you typically deal with interruptions and delays to see if it is time to upgrade your operating system

Leaders have an obligation to be mindful of their defaults and work to keep them in check. This isn’t just about avoiding anti-social behaviour and being a nicer boss. It is about being a better leader and decision maker. After all, mindfulness of one’s defaults enables one to avoid premature autopilot deployment so that one can operate in conscious design mode when required. This makes life a more productive, aspirational and liberating experience.

20 responses on “Catch Yourself before Slipping into Default

  1. Bishwa

    It’s a creatively constructed :: a need of hour purposeful topic ;;defined objective in workplace often mismatches in real terms,, percieved value of opinion around can be destructive and this well crafted write up is setting answers to many ,,
    Himanshu choice of topic and pre- setting is class and has shades of brilliant mind,, keep it up

  2. Anamitra samanta

    Excellent article on a commonly faced problem that causes so much damage in the workspace whereas, an organised self can improve his interpersonal relations, thereby directly impacting work environment and efficiency…

  3. Sourajyoti Datta

    This is a very contemporary article when the complexity and volatility of the business environment is blurring the vision of a leader. I agree with the view of the writer that with this towering complexity and turmoil in business environment leadership need to have humility as great characteristic trait. The great leaders practice moderation, discretion with objectivity by using awareness which they gain out of exposure, experience and struggle of life. I refer to an example of Indian e-commerce organizations, e.g. Flipcart , Smapdeal, Ola and their young leader’s has become poster boys of the global industry by practicing all the traits referred in the article, but the case is so different in case of due lack in display of those characteristics. However, any individual can be turned around with a little help from an expert mentors. Thanks for this excellent and enriching article – Congrats & Keep writing……………

  4. Ashwin

    Loved reading this article. It made me reflect and that’s a great sign.

    A trait that all good leaders have is the ability to be self aware. This article lays bare the flip side of not being able to detect your default state and give solid advice on how to overcome this. A must read for leaders who want to lead with EQ. Well written and very relevant.

  5. Garth Laurie

    Recent research suggests strongly that the thinking capacity of the subconscious mind outstrips that of the conscious mind by several orders of magnitude and I wonder whether the author could distinguish between this capability and what he describes as ‘Subconsciously setting defaults . . .’?

  6. Atul Suri

    I found your insight into ”Slipping into the default mode” rather interesting. This does happen to most people sometime (though a vast majority will not admit it) and most of the time to certain unfortunate people!!!
    I believe that Default Settings can be altered, pretty much like you have written about ‘Managing Auto Pilot Settings’. This I call ‘The Fire Place Time’; where, you sit on the ‘fabled rocking chair’ in front of the fire place and reflect. Reflecting on a setting or an occurrence, Good, Bad or even Ugly gives us an outside view of how things were done and with due thought; during reflection, we can arrive at how the situation could have been handled in a better way. These thoughts and ideas then form part of your sub conscious mind. When, later, you are countered with a similar or near similar situation, you will find yourself automatically reacting in a better way; thus, Altering your Default Setting.
    In the course of my work, as a Learning and Development professional, whenever I speak at various fora, I make it a point to tell the audience the importance of ‘Spending time with ones self’, the great advantages of “The Fire Place Time” and how it contributes to Self Improvement.
    Just thought of sharing my views with you.
    I will look forward to reading more of your work; which I find very relevant and easy to imbibe, given the way you put your points across.

  7. Ajai Lal

    Himanshu, indeed a brilliantly articulated post !
    Majority of our behaviours are outside of our conscious awareness. Habitual ways of behaving are formed at the sub conscious level of the mind, as learned behaviours or paradigms. It is thus critical to address the ’cause’ and the gap between what a person knows and…what they do. As such, improved consciousness will be determined to a large extent by self awareness.
    I fully concur with your thought process and an excellent read. Look forward to reading more of your posts.

  8. Bawa Grover

    Dear Himanshu,

    Well written;flagging rather important points.

    Especially relevant today, when our eco-system is super charged with multiple stimuli, pace & change, that does bewilder most; certainly the people manager and leader.

    So this age of rapid change, does require superior self management qualities, and the derived abilities to deal & respond to things around, not just innovatively and with speed, but equally with peace and grace.

    You do flag important aspects, do consider sharing more.

    Thanks & with warm regards, Bawa
    Managing Partner, Hexagon Consulting, Gurgaon(Delhi NCR), India

  9. Megha Dhargalkar

    Very thought provoking article. Triggers self introspection . This is a wonderful application of what yoga calls ‘sakshi bhav ‘ to corporate life

  10. Rahul

    Excellent Article Himanshu. As always your one line punch has a deep rooted impact and makes me reflect and think. “You slip into a default that needs to be reset.” Implementation needs greater self awareness, control and courage to hold the trigger to move to autopilot. It is an imperative to maintain a balance and not become too predictable in leadership which perhaps is a risk of autopilot mode.

  11. Prashant Menon

    A very commonly encountered and experienced issue! Loved the crafting of sentences to bring home the point of resetting your drop points into the default. Today’s fast paced management style needs to adopt this practice more often and consciously. Keep penning such interesting articles Himanshu, thanks!

  12. Ankita Mishra

    Extremely well crafted. Provokes a lot of thoughts, loved the part of ‘Checking the expiry dates’ of assumptions.

  13. Rucha Ponkshe

    Honestly, I bumped into this post quite unexpectedly…while searching for someone’s whereabouts!!… but definitely pondered around it for quite some time…Yes, actuation is very appealing!!
    It will surely help in personal life, as women trying to balance between personal and professional life, come across such situations more often.. I am sure Megha will agree with me..

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