Reduce the self-limiting biases that prevent success

I was recently mentoring a CEO around her innovation strategy when she mentioned that she’d heard through the grapevine that people thought that she had killed a couple of potential game-changing initiatives. Even worse, she didn’t even know which ones they might have been.


I did point out to her that she was always quite quick to complete people’s sentences for them and that perhaps she needed to drop some of her preconceived biases. Luckily, I didn’t have to duck the object she threw, because we were on Skype. I did get things back on track and we spent a whole session on minimising biases in order to see ideas in a more objective manner, and also some simple ways to allow people to share their point without having a predetermined judgement about their idea.

In this blog, I thought I’d bring this concept to life with a story about Harper, the ‘up and coming’ wunderkind of an agency.

Read on to find out how to reduce the self-limiting biases that are preventing you from success.

Harper was just turning up for a catch up with her bestie Cynthia after work. She was really looking forward to it, but she was running late… again.

“Hey, Cynthia, love the shoes. How are you?”

“Gooood, and what about you, late as always. Another busy day in the agency?” Responded Cynthia.

The next ten minutes were a blur, as Harper gave a verbal dump of her mega day that had involved creating a pitch, presenting it and then getting some training from one of the world’s best innovators, Ricky Rogers. As Harper finished up, she realised that Cynthia, a serial interrupter, hadn’t interrupted her once in her blow-by-blow account of the day. This was very different.

“Sounds like a big day, Harps, and I can tell you’ve learnt a lot. Good for you.” Cynthia said with a hint of smile.

“What about you Cynthia, something’s different with you today, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but what’s new?”

“Well, because you’re asking, let me tell you about something new that I just learnt about cognitive biases and how they can stop us from hitting the big time with our career.” Cynthia, left her words hanging.

“Well come on, out with it. What did you learn?”

“You know how our bank is trying to improve the customer experience? Well, the other day, we had an anthropologist come in and talk to us about observation. How to think like an anthropologist without bias, so that we can really understand what a customer might be experiencing or feeling and how to work out what their needs, desires and frustrations are.” finished Cynthia.

“Ooh, this sounds good. We’ve used some anthropologists before for insight generation assistance. Who was it and what did they teach you specifically?” Asked Harper.

“Well, it was this Russian guy called Mikael Sarachenko. Apparently, he’s written a gazillion books, but he sure knew his stuff. He reckons that we’re all biased and not only can that stop us from understanding a customer, it can often stop us from advancing in our career.”

“No way! Get out of here, Cynthia! Ricky Rogers was talking about biases in our session today too!” said Harper excitedly.

“Cool! Well, apparently, in cognitive biases, there are three categories of biases: decision making biases, social biases and memory biases. Before unpacking them, he kind of went on a rant explaining why biases more often than not hamper our growth both personally and professionally. One of the big ones he mentioned is an evolutionary bias called the ‘negativity bias’."

“This bias is an evolutionary one, which has a strong relationship with our limbic brain and the autonomic response system. Whenever we see something or experience an event, the autonomic response system assesses whether it’s a risk to us and depending on the risk, whether it’s real or imagined, will move us into a fight or flight response. The bad news is, if we have an opportunity in front us that could be great for our career, but it has a hint of risk in it, more often than not, our autonomic response system will suppress the neo cortex (the part of the brain that does our reasoning and creative thought) and we either go into a fight or flight response. Which means we either tear it down, or run the other way. Or when we can’t run, we freeze and do nothing,” said Cynthia.

“So, does he mean we are hardwired to look for risk? Or can we change that? I mean, I have to create new, risky ideas all the time for work. but I seem to do it okay,” enquired Harper.

“Yes, you’re a classic example of how we can change once we have a process or technique to do it. You told me it took you quite a while to master those processes didn’t you?”

“I guess so. What were his tips then?” asked Harper.

“Well, I won’t go into all of them, but I was using one of them when you had a rant about your day at work.”

“I thought something was different, you didn’t interrupt me once, he he.”

“Come on, I don’t always interrupt you, do I?” asked Cynthia sincerely.

“Well, not all the time, but a lot. So what were you doing?” 

“Did you notice what I was doing with my mouth?” asked Cynthia.

“That’s a weird question, but, no, I didn’t notice anything unusual. What were you doing?” 

“So, Mikael called this ‘Open Mouth Theory’ or OMT for short. He reckons that when we are listening to someone speak, either in a conversation or when interviewing someone, nearly everyone will close their mouth and many will close their teeth together too.”

“Harggh, I was just doing that!” interjected Harper.

“He hasn’t backed this up with any formal research, but he first made the observation when he was speaking with a famous business coach. He noticed that when he was speaking that she had her mouth open, quite a fair bit. Being polite, he didn’t say anything, but he thought more about it and started to experiment opening his mouth when listening to people and realised that he was less likely to make a judgement on what someone was talking about, or a judgement on the person.”

“He reckons chiropractors call this a circuit break, which means interrupting how a normal thought and response would flow and be reflected in the body. Now, anthropologists are taught a lot about how to drop as much of their biases before going into observations, and yet he swears that this technique is one of the easiest ways to drop prejudgement of other people or other people’s ideas.”

As Cynthia finished speaking, Harper’s mouth was wide open. “You don’t need to be like a gaping fish, Harps. Just have the lips and teeth slightly apart,” said Cynthia as she shook her head.

“Well, I was just trying it out. It did feel a bit weird, but I’ll have to try it a bit more. What are the other ways I can reduce this negativity bias, Cynthia?”.

“There’s so much more, but my tummy is growling for food. Let’s get some tucker first.” finished Cynthia.


For more information about biases you might want to check out my Innovation Archetypes Book, it’s a great read according to my mum. Open Mouth Theory as simple as it seems, really works so why not try it in your next meeting or conversation.

If you’re interested in a mentoring session with me, feel free to reach out at and we’ll lock in a session to help you step up to the next level of performance at your workplace or in life.



Nils Vesk 

Innovation Keynote Speaker | Futurist Keynote Speaker | Innovation Consultant | Founder of Ideas with Legs






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