Monday, September 21, 2009

Result-Killing Biases

When I talk about “mastering conflict” (as opposed to avoiding it), a lot of people are initially confused by my meaning. This week I’ll explain this a little further.

Patrick Lencioni’s landmark book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” presents a hierarchy of conditions that must be met prior to achieving results. After establishing safety and trust, Lencioni’s hierarchy addresses mastering conflict. This is not AVOIDING conflict, but managing it so that it is productive. We get all of the good ideas out in the open where we can examine and compare them. If in the course of deciding on an action, the collaborators can air their differences in an honest and meaningful way, there is a good chance that they will be able to make a commitment that is meaningful.

Sometimes we avoid conflict by just “going along” with a decision, even when we think it won’t work. Projects that are dependent on too many of these kinds of “commitments” have a low likelihood of success, just because the important information that would have allowed us to make a better decision isn’t shared. It isn’t that we don’t KNOW what to do; we just don’t feel comfortable in sharing it. As you all know, that’s why Pathfinder Communication was founded; in order to teach principles necessary to help us make better decisions.

When we study the nature of decision making errors, we see that avoiding conflict is high on the list. Conflict is how we test each other’s ideas before we implement them. This testing is very easy and inexpensive at the “talking” stages of a project and gets much more difficult as we move through it. I have mentioned several times that the biggest reason that we don’t collaborate is that some of us fear that we will look weak by doing so, or that it will end badly with someone getting irreparably upset. So we are concerned about how someone will behave if we disagree.

As I have written about before, our behaviors are a product of our values and beliefs. Personality inventory tests (like Myers-Briggs for example) ask you about your behaviors and from that will derive your values and beliefs.

Below are some beliefs and values that you may encounter when you are collaborating. It is important to recognize them for what they are and understand that you need to question them if you recognize them in your statements or in the statements of others:

1 – Overconfidence bias. Sometimes, we believe we can do something just because we believe that we SHOULD be able to or because we NEED to or we WANT to. That doesn’t mean we can, and when we find ourselves projecting that we will be successful at something, we should question why we think so and assure that there is some reason to believe it.

2 – Sunk Cost effect. Sometimes, after we have put money or time or effort into an activity, it starts to become apparent that we may not succeed; that maybe we shouldn’t have started it in the first place. We may make a decision to continue to pour effort into the task even when it becomes unlikely that there will be a reasonable return. This difficulty to stop on a task we are invested in, this desire to throw “good money after bad”, is called the sunk cost effect. Remember that if during the course of a project information is revealed that indicates the project is unlikely to produce a reasonable, you need to be responsible enough to shut it down. It is a bad idea to try to “will the project” into becoming productive.

3 – Recency effect. Sometimes, when we look at data, we tend to emphasize recent events over more distant events. Sometimes this is appropriate and sometimes it isn’t. It is always appropriate to question why we think that recent patterns will continue and justify why past patterns won’t repeat.

4 – Confirmation bias. Sometimes when we conduct research, especially when we are hopeful that we will arrive at a given conclusion, we tend to gather or give undue weight to data that tends to confirm the conclusion we want. It is appropriate to gather data that is representative of the range of data available and not just that which supports our position.

5 – Anchoring bias. Sometimes when we negotiate a price may be mentioned by the other party, and we begin to think in terms of that price (instead of the value of the item to us). For instance, a car dealer would like for you to look at the manufacturer’s recommended price and negotiate in terms of that price (“I would like a 15% discount from that price” for instance). The recommended price has become the “anchor” upon which you will base the negotiation. It is appropriate to question the validity of any such anchor.

6 – Illusory Correlation. Sometimes, people represent that there are strong connections (correlations) between events for which there is actually little evidence. For instance, several books have been written about the so-called “Zero Effect” relating to the fact that every US president from 1860 to 1960 that was elected in a year ending in zero (1860, 1880, 1900, 1920, 1940, 1960) died in office. These books offer “reasons” for this pattern, but since Reagan (1980) and Bush (2000) failed to conform, it is clear that whatever reasons were given were illusory. You may laugh at this, but wait till next time someone tells you what stocks to buy based on the outcome of the Superbowl.

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