Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between what he calls the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self. This distinction helps explain why human experiences and memories can be so different. Why experiences fade and memories motivate.
To really understand what Kahneman has to say, view the TED video Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory. I offer a summary of his theory followed by what I think it means to leaders.
Kahneman contends that people base the decisions they make on memories rather than on experience. The distinction between experience and memory is subtle, best explained using an example.
Let’s say you make a presentation to your team. It’s all good news—lots of new and positive announcements. Each member of your audience will remember the good news that has the greatest impact on their lives. When it’s over, most will remember the presentation as a good event, because their memories are positive.
But if during your presentation, one member of your team asks a question that you consider trivial, and you dismiss them with a sarcastic remark or a roll of your eyes, that person will forget most of the good news and remember, above all, the pain of your response. Worse, they will remember your presentation as a bad event.
This happens, Kahneman explains, because change defines experience. That is, people remember experiences that are new and those that signify a conclusion or resolution, because such experiences contain greater significance. And the memories of those experiences—rather than the experiences—motivate future action.
Kahneman would say your slighted employee’s Remembering Self files the event away as a bad memory even though all of the news was good. Even worse, the decisions they make going forward will be influenced by that bad memory, not on subsequent good experiences. Experiences fade. Memories direct decisions.
Leaders can motivate more effectively by creating memorable moments. Kahneman would urge you as a leader to provide experiences that the Remembering Selves of your employees can use to create positive memories and, therefore, make positive decisions.
I go a step further and urge you to use Leadership Intimacy to develop the most accurate possible understanding of your employees. No matter how many leadership skills you develop, no other will enable you to create memories as positive and effective as those based on an intimate understanding of the people you lead.