What do I mean, “truth” ? The truth for our purposes here consists of the available facts, and the identification of the actual cause(s) of event(s) or circumstance(s). It is this second part – figuring out the causes, that requires leaps of reason that get us into trouble. But more on that in a minute.
So… it’s often hard to figure out what the absolute truth of a situation is – we operate mostly with incomplete information, and causes can be obscured by confusing signals. But a leader has to be passionate, and energetic, and persistent about seeking the truth in a situation. Getting at the knowable facts, pursuing the best available idea of what cause and effect are, is critical to good leadership decisions and effective action.
For the skeptics in the crowd, think on this example, drawn from my recent past:
A project being developed by an otherwise capable team is late. Really late. Why is that, and what should be done? Actions must to be taken that make things better, and the choice of what actions to take must be based on an accurate judgment about the causes of the project delay. This seems obvious – leaders that take steps that make things worse, or create change that has no effect, are not really serving the team or themselves at all, are they?
By the way, the leaders in this situation are not necessarily those formally holding management titles. Highly effective action can be driven from any level.
Yet there is a powerful bias that stands in our way. The bias is that we are going to most easily see the evidence that confirms our pre-conceived ideas about why the project is late. Based on nothing more than guesses clouded by emotion and loosely based on past experience, we will already have a theory about the cause, and we will tend to notice more the evidence that favors the pre-conceived notion.
So let’s say that we have had some conflict with a key person on the project team, and they have in another setting proven to be an obstacle to progress. We may suspect (or expect!) that they are a holding the team back. So here is where the bias kicks in, the confirmation bias. The questions we ask, and the information we are most sensitive to, will center on this person and his/her impact on the project. And we very well might find things that disturb us in those answers, that seem to confirm our opinion. So we more intensely focus on our theory.
We often hear the term, “rush to judgment” in prominent court cases. Confirmation bias is a powerful force in police investigations, and history is full of examples of innocent people convicted by a building confirmation bias that pulls in the police, the witnesses, and ultimately the jury.
Back to our example: asked what might make a project late, project managers might point to common factors such as unclear requirements, changes to project scope, unexpected/unanticipated technology challenges, and a host of issues shown over time to cause most project delays. But the confirmation bias has already been at work, and a few specific individuals who are seen as the source of the delay are removed from the project team.
How does it work in this case? Not very well. The delay lengthens even more, though eventually the team delivers a high quality product.
Here are some steps that will reduce the confirmation bias and help a servant leader come closer to the truth:
1. Put a list together of the facts. No causes, not theories. The verifiable facts. Involve the team and the knowledgeable experts. This will serve as an invaluable reference for decision-making.
2. Develop multiple possible causes from these facts. The more the better. Involve folks not influenced by inside knowledge of the team or the project.
3. Consider the opposite: if there is a developing theory, or as a cause starts to surface, specifically identify an opposing theory and invest time to see if it is true. Example: A new product is not selling well, and the theory is developing that it is not a compelling product. Consider the opposite: it is compelling, but we are not succeeding at communicating its benefits/the price is too high/etc.
4. The truth might be surprising, so communication is critical. It is a tough role to be the bearer of a surprising truth, one that counters conventional ideas and a developing confirmation bias. Be prepared to clearly and effectively and persistently communicate why you believe another theory (cause) is closer to the truth.
5. Take action. Effective action is the reason for all this trouble about figuring out causes, the truth, etc. Serve your team by taking the steps that actually make things better.
Here is quote from the intriguing blog You are Not So Smart that brings this home: “Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.”
The confirmation bias is ever-present. So develop the habit of looking elsewhere for the truth. You might be led back to your pre-conceived ideas. But the journey will often take you in surprising directions.
- The Bias Within The Bias (bigthink.com)
- How Warren Buffet Avoids Getting Trapped by Confirmation Bias (forbes.com)