Challenging Conventional Wisdom: Questions Leaders Must Ask

By: Gene Morrissy

Confirmation bias occurs far too frequently in the executive suite and creates havoc at times for companies. You need to look only as far as the recent U.S. presidential election to see it in action.

What is confirmation bias? It is a decision-making characteristic that occurs when people pay attention only to facts consistent with what they want to believe. In the U.S. presidential election, both sides clearly believed they were going to win. Money was spent, ground games were used, and ads were purchased in some states and not in others—all based on a set of assumptions. Of course, we do not now have a joint presidency. There was no tie.

Many of you will recognize what this looks like in business. Leaders sit around the table discussing acquisitions, joint ventures, capital expenditures, and hires based on a set of facts. Financial resources and personnel are allocated to new initiatives, also based on a set of facts or assumptions. (New Coke, for example, seemed like a terrific idea to somebody.) Confirmation bias comes into play when the facts people examine come from a restricted range that is consistent with, or that supports, a desired recommendation. Most of us have been in a presentation where a subset of the data is presented that supports a recommendation. The real danger is that alternative points of view or facts in opposition to the recommendation are unrecognized or even suppressed.

People are for the most part natural optimists. They make assumptions that things will all go according to plan. You may remember that nasty little market collapse in the first decade of the 21st century. Everyone assumed market and house prices would go up forever and that there were no problems to worry about in the underlying economy. (“It is different this time.”) Leaders do not make these problematic decisions intentionally. However, it is a trap they could save themselves from with a little more caution and by challenging a few ideas.

Here are some of the questions that might be asked or ideas that might be considered before a decision is reached:

  • Ask yourself what could go wrong. Or, “What if we are wrong?” (These two are the simplest and my personal favorites to ask before making big decisions.)
  • Identify at the very start what data points are needed to be sure of the conclusion. (This leads people to wait for the right data before coming to a conclusion.)
  • Have someone play devil’s advocate during discussions about critical matters.
  • Ask the people at the table to write down the approval percentage that is needed for them to feel comfortable enough to proceed. Then they should write down the percentage they feel that the recommendation will yield the desired result. (Writing it down prevents anyone from being swayed by others’ percentages.)

The above ideas are all meant to disrupt the human tendency for optimism and the desire to agree and avoid conflict. This is often a group norm. There is tremendous pressure to conform to the group belief. It is incredibly powerful and hard to fight. However, the good news is that if an individual or a team is aware of this characteristic. it can be interrupted. The play Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose, is a classic, albeit fictional, example of how to combat this: All but one of the jurors were ready to convict the defendant. The defendant was saved when one person was unwilling to succumb to the pressure and took an opposing point of view. His challenges turned things around.

Sometimes it takes a hero to challenge conventional wisdom. Anyone can be that hero.

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