Tag Archives: decision-making pitfalls

Confirmation Bias – Has it Happened to You?

CONFIRMATION BIAS AT WORK

It has happened to most of us. Has it happened to you?

That is, has there been a time when data supported a decision you knew to be the right one, but for some reason or reasons you did not get the outcome you expected?

Perhaps you find an exciting investment opportunity like the winners you have spotted before, but it yields mediocre or poor results. Or despite your experience and successful track record when judging candidates, a person you just “knew” would be a good fit turns out to be a bad hire.

With experience can come wisdom… but also confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to pursue and embrace information that matches our existing beliefs. We tend to seek out and enjoy people who write or say exactly what we think. We gravitate toward these sources not for information but for confirmation.

Researcher and writer Thomas Gilovich posits the “most likely reason for the excessive influence of confirmatory information is that it is easier to deal with cognitively.” It’s easier to think what we think!

Yet confirmation bias in business can be especially hazardous and costly to highly-experienced and successful individuals. These minds are adept at spotting patterns, learning from experience, scanning the horizon and connecting the dots. If that describes your talents, take a look at this classic puzzle nicely presented by the “The Upshot.”

If you attempted the puzzle, how did you do?

For those who opted out, in this puzzle participants are given a numerical pattern and are asked to determine the underlying rule. The pattern is quite simple, and participants can test their theories as often as they like before specifying the rule. Yet 77% of participants fail to identify the rule because as soon as they find a pattern that supports their theory they conclude it is the correct rule.

In other words, 77% of participants succumb to confirmation bias.

This is a common occurrence in business. When trying to solve problems or make decisions we overwhelmingly look for patterns that support our theories rather than looking for data that would clue us in that we have missed the mark. And with each piece of data that does not refute our theory, we become more confident in our belief.

This exercise shows how people tend to work at proving their theories right, instead of robustly testing the theories to prove them wrong. Once we have seen enough supporting evidence to confirm we are right, it is far more natural for us to fully embrace our premise or idea.

For instance, maybe we are tasked with determining why a certain work process is not being done well. Is the work done less well by inexperienced employees, or when the machine is overdue for maintenance, or when the materials have a certain characteristic?

We could test all three of these ideas with data. But our natural confirmation bias makes us far more likely to look for evidence that the idea we favor is correct than to look for ways it may be mistaken. So, we start testing the idea we think is most likely and as soon as we find enough evidence to support it, we risk diving into the solution and excluding the other possibilities; and we could very well be headed down a path of action that is sub-optimum for our organization.

In our next post we’ll take a closer look at examples of confirmation bias in the workplace and steps that can be taken to avoid it.

Decision-making Pitfalls: Part 3

4 Pitfalls to Avoid

Our previous two posts focused on the decision-making process, as outlined in a Wall Street Journal Article by Robert I. Sutton, a professor in the department of management science and engineering at Stanford University. The premise is that “how” leaders make decisions is just as important as the decisions themselves. 

In his article Sutton identified four bad habits associated with “how” bosses make decisions. As discussed in our previous two posts, the first of these pitfalls are:

  • Telling people they have a voice in decision-making when, in reality, they don’t
  • Treating final decisions as anything but

The final two habits to be avoided are:

  • Moving too fast: While some leaders suffer from indecision and procrastination, some decisions require more careful thought— “especially risky, important and complicated ones that are costly (or even impossible) to reverse,” Sutton says. Despite the fact that employees most often like working with managers who are confident  and don’t waste time, they are also leery of snap decisions, which are likely to turn out wrong. These decisions are also more likely to undermine employees’ faith in their leader and the decision, and can make employees less motivated to implement the decision. It’s the difference between a smart, confident decision and a  rash one, possibly made without proper research or without sufficient facts and data.
  • Using decision-making as a substitute for action: “A decision by itself changes nothing” says Sutton. Simply “deciding” to change a protocol or process doesn’t help unless someone actually does it! The gap between “knowing” and “doing” is real, yet too many leaders act as if, once they make a decision, and perhaps spread the word, their work is done.

Decision-Making Pitfalls: Part 2

Decision-Making Pitfalls

Our previous post shared data from a Wall Street Journal article about decision-making, which indicated that the way in which leaders make decisions (the process) is just as important as what decisions they make.

In that article, author Robert I. Sutton described four specific pitfalls associated with the decision-making process that can compromise a leader’s effectiveness as well as the effectiveness and attitudes of people throughout the organization.

The first of these pitfalls, which was the subject of our previous post, involves telling people they have a voice in decision-making when, in reality, they don’t.

Next on the list is the poor habit some leaders have of “treating final decisions as anything but!”

“Many insecure bosses have a habit that is especially damaging: After a decision has been made and communicated and implementation has begun, their insecurity compels them to revisit the choice too soon and too often. A few complaints, a small early setback, or simply anxiety about the decision can provoke such unnecessary reconsideration.”

Sutton goes on to explain that the insecurity and waffling “infects their teams.”  In addition, many of the people involved lose faith in their leaders’ ability to make good decisions, and also lose interest in implementing new directives that could soon become subject to change.

We will take a look at two additional decision-making pitfalls in our next post.

Decision Making Pitfalls – Part 1

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Robert I. Sutton, a professor in the department of management science and engineering at Stanford University and co-author of “Scaling Up Excellence,” shared some interesting and important insight into decision-making.

In his article, Sutton makes several points consistent with the fact that all work (i.e., decision making) is part of a process, and every process can be improved.

For example, he first explains that in organizations of all types, how  leaders make decisions (the process) is just as important as what decisions they make.

Sutton then described four specific pitfalls associated with the decision-making process that can compromise a leader’s effectiveness as well as the effectiveness and attitudes of people throughout the organization.

The first of these pitfalls involves telling people they have a voice in decision-making when, in reality, they don’t.

“Good decision-making entails consulting key stakeholders—and using their input to shape final choices,” Sutton said.  “Doing so improves the quality of the decisions, and makes employees more motivated to implement them.”

Unfortunately, in too many cases the consultation of others is only make believe… it starts out looking like the real thing, but in the end leaders are just pretending that others’ input has some influence over the final decision.

While the motivating force behind the make-believe-consultation can vary — some bosses do it to fool people into getting behind the decision’s implementation, and others because they think the mere opportunity to voice opinions somehow makes people feel better — it doesn’t matter. In the end, pretending to consult others for decision-making purposes and then ignoring their input turns out to be demoralizing. Further, the associated deception and disrespect often causes employees or stakeholders to lose faith in their leaders.

In upcoming posts we’ll look at three additional pitfalls related to “how” decisions are made, and how each impacts all of the people involved.