Have you ever been in a situation where you couldn’t tell which way was up? Now imagine having that same feeling submerged deep underwater with a depleting supply of oxygen. This feeling, known as alternobaric vertigo, can strike scuba divers during periods of transition from one pressure zone to another, temporarily rendering them unable to determine the direction toward the surface. If left unchecked, divers could think they are making their way up for air when, in fact, they are descending deeper into the abyss.
In a similar way, I believe that our experiences can both help us and hinder us. Just as alternobaric vertigo can cause divers to lose their sense of direction, experiential vertigo can cause us to overly trust the direction our experiences may be pulling us. When we find ourselves in periods of crisis or disorientation, it’s natural to rely on our experiences to guide us. Is personal experience more valuable than, say, expert opinion, thorough analysis, or existing policy? Maybe it is. But we shouldn’t assume it.
Our experiences are deeply linked to who we are as individuals. They are a part of what makes each of us unique and interesting. How we are raised, the people and cultures that surround us, the jobs we choose, the relationships we foster—all of these factors give each of us a unique perspective on the world. And, for better or for worse, these experiences influence the decisions we make everyday.
Take success, for example. Previous successes can convince us that we have mastered certain skills. Mark Twain once stated, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” So maybe experience alone isn’t enough. So when we encounter a new problem that “rhymes” with those experienced before, we may be tempted to simply apply what’s worked in the past. This could be the exact approach needed for the situation. Or, perhaps we have inadvertently constrained our thinking, causing us to miss unique elements of the new challenge we are facing. Mid twentieth century management expert Peter Drucker reminds us, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Our experiences may be convincing us to keep on doing something old. Instead, maybe it’s time to be radical or entrepreneurial. Maybe it’s time to do something new.
Experiential vertigo has the potential to limit our potential. So how do we recognize when we are in a state of experiential vertigo? Consider the following questions:
- Am I (or is my organization) a victim of its own success? Nothing breeds complacency like success. It can encourage us to rest on the laurels of the present with little regard for the future. In 2000, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings offered to partner with video rental behemoth Blockbuster. Blockbuster was at its peak while Netflix was losing money. The idea was simple: They would merge their concepts, with Netflix managing the digital content while Blockbuster managed the stores. Blockbuster CEO John Antioco scoffed at the offer, not seeing any need for a transition to digital. Antioco had experiential vertigo. Now Netflix has a multi-billion dollar valuation while Blockbuster is bankrupt.
- Am I (or is my organization) clinging to a tradition? Many people and organizations continue doing things simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done. Sometimes they aren’t even sure why. Consider G.R. Stephenson’s (often fabled) 1960s experiment, where he placed five monkeys and a banana in a cage. Whenever a monkey reached for the banana, the group was sprayed with cold water. Next, he’d replace one of the monkeys in the cage with a new one. Naturally, the new monkey would reach for the banana. Not wanting to get sprayed with cold water, the other monkeys would attack him, preventing him from reaching the banana. One by one, each of the original five monkeys is replaced by a new one. By the end of the experiment, none of the monkeys in the cage had been sprayed with cold water. Yet none would go near the banana and would attack any other monkey that did. These monkeys didn’t have the capacity to question their experience. But humans certainly can. Peter Drucker reminds us, “if you were not doing something already, would you be doing it now? And if the answer is no then you must plan for abandonment.” Maybe some of your long standing traditions need to be adapted or even abandoned.
- Am I (or is my organization) suppressing diversity of thought? The real power of a team comes from the diversity of thought of its team members. Disagreement, debate and fierce dialogue are essential elements of teamwork. They also happen to be the elements that were acutely missing from the Theranos board of directors. In 2015, this Silicon Valley’s fast-growing biotech startup was exposed for what it truly was: an over-hyped company seemingly built on lies and secrecy. The revolutionary product they promised—the ability to run scores of medical tests with only a small pinprick of blood—was based on fraudulent claims of technological breakthroughs. Theranos is now facing criminal and civil investigations. The original Theranos board was a homogenous collection of like-minded and individuals with similar successful experiences. In the end, groupthink plagued Theranos and it can plague your organization too. It limits your experiential base to only what’s contained within the four walls of your organization. The experiential vertigo in the Theranos boardroom resulted in an experiential vortex, pulling the company down seemingly unbeknownst to the board.
When divers experience that sense of alternobaric vertigo, their judgement regarding up from down cannot be trusted. Instead, the key is to avoid panic, let the pressure in their ears equalize, check their instruments, and resume their ascent. Similarly, when we are staring down new challenges, we need to fight the urge to rely solely on our experience—they may just sink us. Alternatively, we need to remain calm, adapt to the new pressures, probe the situation, and allow ourselves to be guided by more than just our own experiences. To do otherwise—succumbing to experiential vertigo—may put us on the same path as Blockbuster, Theranos, and Stephenson’s confused and angry monkeys.
At The Gasparotto Group our programs give individuals the tools to lead organizations into unfamiliar environments. If you want to learn how to leverage your experience and avoid experiential vertigo, check out our programs at www.gasparotto.co.
About the Author
Anthony Robb has 20 years of experience in the Canadian Army. He is a nationally decorated officer, having served on two operational deployments to Kandahar, Afghanistan. He has a Bachelor in Electrical Engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada and a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership from Norwich University. He is a leadership development professional and valued member of the Gasparotto Group team. He is active in the planning and execution of leadership programs. He also has a passion for coaching people who are eager to reach beyond their perceived potential.
The Gasparotto Group partners with organizations to help them create and nurture cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.