The Danger of Being on Autopilot

By Clyde C. Lowstuter

Cool blue airliner cockpitJumbo jets use ‘em. Small planes use ‘em. Executives use ‘em.  Lest you misunderstand – I’m not suggesting for a moment that airline pilots stop using the autopilot feature on their planes. Autopilots are great; they allow pilots to set the coordinates to a given destination and, barring unusual circumstances, the plane will arrive at its designated airport. Pilots don’t like deviations or surprises; they like certainty and definitive outcomes.

Have you been on the receiving end of a boss or direct report who responds virtually the same way in every situation? If so, they are operating on autopilot.  All of us switch to “auto” mode sometimes. However, it becomes a problem when people operate in autopilot mode all the time. When the automatic response becomes habitual and excessive it cuts off options before an issue is completely understood.

A coaching client of mine, I’ll call him Fred, uses his autopilot to avoid risks and to duck taking on additional work.  When asked his opinion about an issue, any issue, he would respond, “I’ll look into that later.” On the surface, this is an acceptable answer for someone who wants to do research and actually follow up. However, when Fred’s response becomes a habitual way to escape making a decision or being at risk, his response is disempowering and unproductive.  The result is that people stopped taking Fred seriously and ultimately stopped asking for his advice and opinions.

As Fred’s executive coach, we worked with him to reframe the way he viewed risk and reprogrammed his autopilot. Fred began focusing on what he knew versus what he lacked. We had Fred ask himself several key questions:

  • What do I GAIN / LOSE by avoiding getting involved and helping others?
  • What is my greatest risk if I do get involved?
  • Who is impacted by this issue and its resolution?
  • What insights and recommendations might others have that would enhance the outcome?

The bottom line is that Fred now delights in constructive debate and mentoring others.

I invite you to pay attention to your automatic responses this week:

How, why, and when do you operate on autopilot? 

What’s the impact of not broadening your perspectives?

What perspectives might you shift to enhance your overall effectiveness?  


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