The answer to the question posed above for most of us is a resounding NO!
I was working with a very smart, visionary, driven young general manager. He called me for help to ‘fix’ his second in command. As he shared the struggles he was having with this man, he made the statement, “I don’t think he is the right person for the job!”
I offered this perspective, “If you don’t believe he can be successful, he can’t!”
The GM glossed over this statement and went on to discuss some tactical things he might put in place to increase the training and accountability for this man.
I challenged him again, “You can put all that in place however if you don’t believe he can be successful, he can’t!” Finally, he stopped for a moment and sat staring at me.
He started again, “Well I need to at least try to put some things in place to train him better, to make an attempt to help him be successful, don’t I?”
“Share with me how all that training is going to help change your belief about this man?” I asked.
“Well maybe I will see that he can learn more of what I need him to learn,” he countered.
“Will you see that? Will you be looking for the things he does well, or will you be looking for the things that confirm your belief that he is not the right person for the job?”
What is confirmation bias and why is it so important?
What this young GM and I were discussing is one type of unconscious bias called ‘confirmation bias’ and it is fascinating!
I’m sure at one time or another you have heard one or all of the following statements:
- You get what you look for!
- You see what you want to see!
- You believe what you want to believe!
Confirmation bias was coined by English psychologist Peter Wason and is defined as, “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values.” Wason also identified that it is difficult to disconnect from your bias once affirmed.
Simply put, as human beings we are inherently wired to prove ourselves right. Whatever our perspective on a topic or person, we are driven to gather the sufficient data to prove that our perspective is the right perspective.
In other words, our eyes and minds are more in tune to anything that supports what we already believe about a person, a company, a category of people, a country, the world!
Confirmation bias is only one type of unconscious bias and unconscious bias is everywhere. We can’t help it. If we are human…we are biased!
Our view of the world is shaped through our upbringing, our culture, our parents, our early experiences. All this data is held at an unconscious level and because our brains are inherently lazy, it needs to find a way to create short cuts, to categorize things into familiar patterns for retrieval later.
This is a strength when we see a grizzly bear and our brain very quickly signals us that this animal lands in the ‘very dangerous’ category!
Where it is not a strength is when we are working with people and trying to run a successful business. Our confirmation bias limits our leadership effectiveness!
The Business Impact of Confirmation Bias
Think about confirmation bias in terms of business impact. Every single one of us has biases and we are looking to confirm that we are right. Each leader on your team is bringing those biases to the table, unconsciously!
So, each of these leaders is potentially looking and listening for evidence that supports their own beliefs and rejecting any evidence that does not align with their beliefs! Times that by the number of people sitting at your leadership table and that is very powerful!
This HBS article shares a great example of a CEO who has an idea for the ‘next big thing’. Everything that results after the CEO has decided this and shared his perspective with others is designed to confirm that perspective. The team that is tasked with carrying out the research is now unconsciously biased to prove that the CEO’s idea is correct.
But what if that CEO’s idea is not the next big thing? What if there are flaws in the thinking? What if there is other vital information that could inform that thinking differently? How much time, energy, money, talent will be wasted trying to prove that CEO right? How comfortable do you think any team member would be to challenge the thinking or present an opposing perspective?
Now think about your own business or team…how often do you think this happens and how is it hurting your business?
How Can We Mitigate Confirmation Bias?
We cannot make our biases go away, they are deeply engrained…we can only become conscious of them and manage them.
Going back to the GM I was working with, it was not about making him wrong, it was about bringing consciousness to his biases towards this other individual and then putting in place some structures to help him work with that person in a more objective way.
When we got down to a frank discussion about the 'go forward plan' we landed on the following…either fire the person now or truly put in place some structures to provide the environment in which he has the best chance of success…that might even mean he gets teamed up with someone else for training and mentoring, someone other than the GM…someone who believes he has a chance of being successful!
Here are a few ideas to increase your consciousness and challenge your biases:
- First, take time to slow down. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, says that our brains are lazy and want to go on auto pilot. Don’t let your brain do this. Stop and think about the biases that you have. Perhaps write them down and talk about them with a trusted friend, colleague or coach, someone who will not judge you. The first step is always awareness and bringing the unknown into consciousness. Do you feel ashamed or uncomfortable about what you discover? GREAT! You are on the right track!
- Get out of your comfort zone and seek out new experiences. Read, listen, watch, interact more broadly, with people outside of your inner circle. Make yourself uncomfortable! The more variety you expose yourself to, the broader you will see the world.
- Seek to gather evidence that proves you wrong. If you are stuck in a perspective, invite others to challenge your perspective and give you opposing views of the person or situation. In fact, insist that they do!
- To support better group decision making, challenge the team to poke holes in their own theories and ideas. Get the team in the practice of proving itself wrong in order to view a situation or person through a new lens. A great structure for playing with this type of critical thinking is using The Six Thinking Hats Theory. This theory focuses on being purposeful about exploring a problem or strategy from a number of different angles.
- Be intentional about filling your team with people who are different from you and have different perspectives, skills and experiences. Look at your hiring practices. Ensure there is a diverse team on the selection and interview committee.
- Be present with others. Listen to what they have to say. Ask deep and curious questions to understand their experiences and perspective. Even if you completely disagree with someone, ask more questions to understand why they believe what they do or where their perspective is coming from.
Your job as a leader is to create an environment for people to be as successful as possible. Through awareness and a conscious decision to try to prove yourself wrong, you can build a more effective, innovative, creative, and inclusive teams and organizations.
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