Beware this decision-making flaw

There’s a pesky little decision-making flaw that we all fall prey to. This insidious decision villain seems to ramp up big-time during any election season, and we’re seeing it run amok now, so this week’s blog is a timely reminder for us all.

Since this is a leadership blog, I’m going to focus on how this error can reduce your decision-making effectiveness as a leader in your organisation. When it comes to leadership, this bias can distort our decision-making like nothing else.

But first, what is this decision-making defect that we should all watch out for? It’s something with a slightly scientific name: “confirmation bias” – which, simply put, is a tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs or theories.

You can see how this shows up when it comes to elections. We subconsciously seek out information that supports our favoured candidates and negatively portrays the opposing candidates. We take on information that confirms what we think is right, and dismiss anything to the contrary. It’s cognitively easier on us this way, but it isn’t all that smart.

Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony, authors of the book, On Making Smart Decisions explain why we need to take stock of this phenomenon:

“A team that has fallen in love with its recommendation may subconsciously dismiss evidence that contradicts its theories, give far too much weight to one piece of data, or make faulty comparisons to another business case. That’s why, with important decisions, executives need to conduct a careful review not only of the content of recommendations, but of the recommendation process.”

A type of confirmation bias nearly all leaders are guilty of, is the process where we give undue weight to early evidence. By accepting early information, we risk creating a bias which affects our view of any later evidence. The result is that we can end up with a skewed assessment.

6 ways to prevent ‘confirmation bias’ running riot in your leadership practice and life:

1. Seek contrary evidence.

Especially when it comes to those decisions with significant impact on your team and organisation, seek opposing views. This is even more important when you or your team are really ‘hot’ on your proposed idea. Seeking dissenting perspectives can be uncomfortable. But it’s a good process to adopt nevertheless. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself or your team when you’re in this situation:

  • How wedded am I/are we to this idea?
  • How could my/our enthusiasm and passion be blindsiding me/us?
  • If I was/we were to play ‘devil’s advocate’ in this situation, what would we say?
  • How can looking at this from another perspective make the way forward more robust?
  • What if I/we entertained the idea for a moment that I/we held incorrect assumptions in this instance? What are the assumptions we need to challenge?
  • What are at least two arguments against my/our current position?

2. Cultivate self-awareness.

Self-awareness is always a great thing to foster as a leader. The best leaders, of thousands that I’ve worked with, are really self-aware. They also consistently put energy into continuing to build their self-awareness. One way to do this is to uncover your implicit biases. Here’s another blog post I wrote a while back, which provides you with some strategies on how to do this. The more self-aware you are, the more likely you’ll know when you’re demonstrating confirmation bias.

3. Encourage your team to challenge your thinking on a regular basis.

Don’t take a leaf out of the book of certain world leaders who shall remain nameless – those who fire anyone who dares challenge them. Instead, make it safe for those you lead to disagree with you. See here for more ideas on how to do that. Seek counsel from those who you respect and who respect you enough to tell you how it really is, even when you don’t want to hear what they have to say. A ‘challenging cheerleader’ is useful for anyone who’s in a leadership role.

4. Cultivate diversity

Don’t surround yourself with people just like you. Here are the facts: diverse executive boards generate better returns. Teams who are diverse make better decisions. In one study, decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60% better results. This is likely because diverse groups uncover more angles. By bringing in external viewpoints, businesses with diversity find new ways of looking at a problem and can overcome their tunnel vision. Research has also shown that in teams, the presence of multicultural members significantly enhanced the teams’ creative performance.

Spend time trying to understand the perspective of those whose opinions you vehemently disagree with. Do this with the energy of purely trying to understand their perspective, rather than being positional or trying to convert them to your thinking. Hard, yes?! But totally worth it!

5. Regularly reflect on trends in your decision-making

There’s nothing wrong with knowing your values and being clear on your direction. In fact, these are good things to do as a leader. It’s another story if you’re being dogmatic, static or stuck in your thinking. Ask “what is something that I used to believe in passionately, but which now I’m not so sure about?” If you can’t answer this, it’s not a good sign.

6. Practice active listening, often.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, listening is a crucial leadership skill to develop. If you’re listening deeply and often, it’s less likely you’ll fall victim to confirmation bias. This article which I published for Idealog, shows you how to do this, and the points above will hopefully encourage you to expand who you are listening to.

The best decisions – in business and in life – come from critical thinking and a healthy dose of challenge, but most people don’t feel comfortable to speak up or voice concerns at work. As leaders it’s our job to be aware of our (and our teams’) confirmation bias and proactively challenge it by seeking different opinions and encouraging debate. Alongside your values and vision, remain open-minded enough to take on conflicting information and self-aware enough to see where confirmation bias might be clouding your decision-making. Not only is this called for in business, but it’s vital too around election time. 

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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