The Bias That Kills

Commitment to one’s own correctness is a dangerous thing.


On some level, we all want to be right.

We want to be right when it comes to our basic values.  We want to be right when it comes to picking a political candidate.  We want to be right when we root for a football team.

Our minds have a need to be right.  And, that’s ok.  It’s a way that we cope.

But stemming from this desire, a bias exists out there that is the absolute killer of executives and strategist of all walks: It’s the very real bias toward confirming of one’s beliefs.

I won’t go into depth on the issue, but suffice it to say that confirmation bias is a real psychological phenomenon.  We like data that says we are right, and we (as a rule) dislike data that says we are wrong.  It makes us uncomfortable.

Cases in point:

Many confirmation biases exist in personnel decisions.  We like people and it can blind us to their performance.  I once worked with a manager who had a very strong opinion about placing a particular person in an important role.  The executive viewed the placement idea as creative and nonconformist, and, in a highly collaborative manner, asked the candidate’s prospective team members about whether that particular placement would be a good idea.  Unfortunately the feedback wasn’t good.  To a person, the team gave negative comments from the aggressively passive “do whatever you want” all the way down to the directly negative “terrible idea.”

Instead of taking that advice, however, the hiring manager changed the game.  They decided to go ask several more people…people without a direct stake in the decision, and those people, of course, praised the creativity of the “idea” of the hire. The manager, probably not knowing that ego was driving the search for confirming evidence, felt free to make the placement. And the decision ultimately cost untold dollars in organizational support, coaching, and botched decision making, not to mention the friction of frustration in the team that come with dealing with a less than competent team member sponsored aggressively by the boss.

This sort of bias exists in business strategy as well. When we have a good idea about a market, we want to know that the idea is good; we seek validation.  I once worked days, nights, and weekends on a project to build a massive production facility in southeast Asia.  The economics of the facility were bad, the technology the facility depended on was unproven, and,the leadership team was marginal at best.  Behind the scenes, executives viewed evidence that the technology “might” work as highly validating, even in the face of the dominant perspective that it “probably wouldn’t” from the same engineers. In spite of a massive set of evidence that the project should be shut down, the company flushed more than a hundred million dollars into it just because its leadership team said it would work.

These cases provide the micro and the macro of this particular bias…  it’s a bias that kills.  It kills teams when people maintain commitments to non-performers they simply like and validate constantly.  It kills shareholder value when projects are not stopped when the evidence says they should be.  It kills careers when people seek a rationale to stay with a really bad role in a really bad company or under a really bad leader.

We search for confirming evidence, even in the face of massive contradictory evidence.  It might feel off color to say so, but this is the realm of battered spouses who won’t leave their mates; they always find reasons to stay.  Only it’s also the issue of highly “successful” executives who can’t for a moment believe that they might have been wrong yesterday.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

In other words, when we foolishly stick to our guns in the name of commitments made yesterday or the day before, we avoid the ability to explore whether we could be great.  This is not a call to avoid commitment. It’s a call to avoid the pressure your ego places on you to stay with bad commitments.

It’s a call to avoid being “little” in a leadership sense.  It’s a call to be big.

Stop, reflect, and be willing to admit…even just for a moment…that you might be wrong.

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