Design the Management System with an Appreciation of Confirmation Bias

photo of John Hunter with a walking stick

John Hunter hiking at Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia, when I was a bit younger.

To create strong organizations we must create management systems using an appreciation of psychology. We must understand that people have tendencies that must be addressed by designing a management system built to take advantage of the strength those people bring and mitigate the risks the weaknesses (such as confirmation bias) that those people also bring.

One way to do this is to seek out voices in your organization that question and challenge accepted positions. Often organizations promote those that make things easiest for everyone, which correlates very well with supporting existing biases within the organization while making things difficult for those that challenge the existing thinking.

As I wrote previously in, How We Know What We Know:

the way people build up beliefs, is full of all sorts of systemic problems.
… [people] tend to think someone entertaining is more educational than someone not entertaining. They may be more entertaining, but taking the ideas of those who are entertaining and rejecting the ideas of people who are not is not a great strategy to build up a great system of knowledge.

To more effectively adopt good ideas and reject bad ideas, understanding the theory of knowledge (how we know what we know) and then applying that knowledge to how you learn is a better strategy. Learning to recognize confirmation bias and take steps to avoid it is one positive step. Learning to recognize when you accept ideas from those you like without critical judgment and reject ideas from those you find annoying and then learning to evaluate the ideas on the merits is another positive step…

I also wrote about these ideas in, The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions:

Often we have created cultural norms that make it difficult for people to ask for evidence of claims. And the culture in many organizations can make those that seek evidence for claims as being difficult or even personally attacking those that support a certain course of action. However this is a dangerous attitude and it is directly counter to the fundamental aspects of management improvement efforts (evidence decision making, continual improvement, etc.).

Learning to challenge confirmation bias in your own thinking is hard. Often it is much harder to learn how to get the organization as a whole to change from one where confirming (and maybe ignoring anything that might make it difficult to maintain the existing belief) what most of us believe (or wish to be true) to one where challenging the assumptions underlying our thought process is appreciated.

Great benefits flow to organizations that encourage the challenging of beliefs, ideas and the lessons we draw from data. But such a culture can create friction in organizations without other strong management practices (respect for people, an understanding of what data does and does not reveal…). Often creating such a culture is something best left until the process of building the capability of the organization is well underway.

Related: The Illusion of UnderstandingManaging Our Way to Economic SuccessExperience Teaches Nothing Without TheoryThe Dangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of Data

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One Response to Design the Management System with an Appreciation of Confirmation Bias

  1. Greg Johnson says:

    Unfortunately for millions of people working today, management which believes it can create a strong and successful culture at some point in the future when capabilities align is exactly the kind of management that likely lacks respect for people and is more often misled than led by data. Culture (negative or positive) exists with or without management’s intentions and will probably stumble along in the same mode, impervious to efforts made from above or below, once it has been established that people are not respected.

    I agree with everything you have written above, I just struggle with the common conception of culture as an intentional design which can be imposed on an organization. I do not at all believe this is how people actually function. You said it best when you pointed to the promotion of “those who make things easiest on everyone.” Let that process go on long enough and you’ll find an organization that may never build the capacity to change.

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