4 MIN READ | Political Psychology

Learning About Crisis Leadership from Donald Trump: Don’t Fall Prey to the ‘Not Invented Here Syndrome’

Professor Thomas Bateman

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Professor Thomas Bateman, (2020, April 27). Learning About Crisis Leadership from Donald Trump: Don’t Fall Prey to the ‘Not Invented Here Syndrome’. Psychreg on Political Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/leadership-donald-trump/
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It’s not controversial – I’m pretty sure – to say that Donald Trump’s personality and management style are unique. Can we learn anything about leadership from the US President?

Yes, a lot, if only we try.

We can learn about leadership from Donald Trump

People love to criticise their leaders, whether elected officials or their bosses. I’m as guilty as anyone of criticising leaders I don’t like or respect, mostly because: 1) criticising is satisfying, and 2) those leaders deserve it, at least in our confident opinions.

The trouble is, criticising inhibits learning. It makes us feel smart and think we’ve completed the analysis.  When asked about Trump’s leadership, critics quickly say that we can learn how not to lead. But assuming the President is too unique to deserve further scrutiny is not a pathway to learning.

Meanwhile, some supporters might think they’ve learned something useful. But modelling his actions will backfire, mainly because most people are not Donald Trump. Plus, they operate in more normal circumstances where the tactics will fail, eventually if not immediately.

It makes sense to try to learn from models like presidents, but mostly we’re not.

What we all can learn from President Trump is what works and what doesn’t, plus potentially why and when. Here I describe a particular way people in leadership positions – many, and perhaps most – self-sabotage when they make decisions.

Decision-making and self-sabotage

Leaders make decisions all day every day and along the way they self-sabotage. Like everyone, they make mistakes they could have avoided by using better decision-making processes. 

Also like everyone, President Trump’s mistakes occur for countless reasons.  Here I describe a common bias – the Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome, a cause of self-sabotage to which decision-makers everywhere fall prey.

NIH is a decision-making heuristic or shortcut, not found in most lists of cognitive biases. It’s a bias against knowledge and ideas that come from outside sources, and not from oneself or a favoured in-group. NIH causes people to evaluate ideas inaccurately, reject good ones, and accept bad ones – leading to lower performance, weaker results, and outright failures.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re tackling a routine work problem, a fast-arriving pandemic, or periodic business and economic crises. We usually have access to helpful knowledge, ideas, and plans, but we self-sabotage by not using or seeking them.

NIH is everywhere, including the COVID-19 pandemic

The NIH syndrome appears everywhere, especially when a person in a commanding position is overconfident, closed-minded, or prejudiced. In addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration shows little interest in outside help or suggestions with testing procedures and materials, protective equipment, supply chains, implementation, or communication strategies and tactics.

Time continues to reveal new facts and anecdotes about their decision processes. Still, the President appears to ignore the best research, healthcare providers, and top economists while hoping to ‘re-open America’ without a coherent plan, other than to delegate decisions to 50 Governors.

The virus task force has a vast array of options and rejects some for good reasons, such as quality concerns about particular tests. But NIH is a clear pattern, for the president as with other decision-makers, that spurs too many preventable mistakes.

More NIH pitfalls

NIH is a social phenomenon as well as a personal bias, guided by the people a leader listens to most: oneself, perhaps family, close associates, trusted friends, and in-groups in the workplace. For any organisation, top-level NIH and other biases cascade downward throughout the system.

A special version of NIH goes beyond failures to accept good ideas from outsiders, as leaders actively destroy even the best of predecessors’ previous actions. Pandemic examples reportedly include pre-formed plans and input from President Bush, President Obama, Obama’s aides during the transition crisis, and multiple units within and outside the federal government.

It should go without saying that the pandemic is not the president’s fault.  But the terrible consequences are mounting. Operating from a pool of limited, biased opinions creates an administration or team that performs poorly. The poor results overall indicate the crucial role of effective decision-making processes.

The leadership we need

Concerning COVID-19, some state and local officials are showing us how wise leaders focus hard on the problem, seek evidence and helpful expertise, encourage open sharing of ideas, and make choices most likely to create the best results.

When official leaders don’t ensure these processes, informal leaders can step up and do so, perhaps. Creating a culture of psychology safety allows members to speak honestly, whereas domineering bosses quash potentially-valuable voices.

For challenging problems and consequential decisions, top decision-makers and team members should seek outside input actively.  As the Trump administration rolled out the CARES programme to address the pandemic, critics slammed it as too slow, unfair, and inadequate.

Blame is flowing in many directions, but I attribute it less to a personality than to a prevalent bias and faulty but controllable decision process. 

NIH sabotages decisions and those who make them. Successfully creating and launching new products – from public health services to commercial goods – requires information that most teams don’t have. The CARES rollout could have gone better with data or perspective from experienced outsiders, end-users of the services, and heavy involvement of those responsible for implementing the plan.  Laser-focused eyes on the prize – solving the problem – plus ideas from good-faith outside sources, are key to better leadership and the best results.

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An earlier version of this appeared in Psychology Today.

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Image credit: Pixabay


Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.

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