As we've seen, confirmation bias causes us to seek confirmation of our preconceptions, while we avoid contradictions to them, always outside our awareness. Last time, we explored the effects of confirmation bias on thought processes. Let's now explore its affects on management processes. Here are four ways people use confirmation bias to reinforce their preconceptions about managing.
- The Pygmalion Effect
- In the Pygmalion Effect [Livingston 1991], managers' expectations influence how they see employee performance, which influences employees' performance itself. This transcends confirmation bias, which applies only to the owner of the preconceptions.
- But employee performance is rarely deficient in every way. Although it might be substandard, it almost certainly has some bright spots. But managers with negative preconceptions tend to undervalue those bright spots, and overvalue problematic performance factors. Thus, confirmation bias provides a foundation for the Pygmalion Effect by hardening the manager's preconceptions. In extreme cases, it might even be the precipitating cause of the entire incident.
- Lock-in is a pattern of dysfunction that appears in decision-making when an individual or group escalates its commitment to a low-quality prior decision, often in spite of the availability of superior alternatives. Lock-in can be a symptom of confirmation bias, because it helps the decision-maker resist information or ideas that call preconceptions into question.
- To some extent, educating decision-makers about the role of confirmation bias in lock-in can help control lock-in. But this tactic is relatively ineffective once lock-in happens, because the educator can appear to be furthering an agenda of opposition to the prior decision.
- The backfire effect
- When we correct misstatements made by others, their beliefs in their misstatements sometimes intensify. The attempt to correct backfires.
- When this happens, it's often caused by confirmation bias, as the people corrected try to preserve their preconceptions.
- Aversion or resistance to reviews, inspections, and dry runs
- Structured defect discovery activities are intended to improve the quality of work products by uncovering defects. The experience of having one's work inspected can therefore be painful to those who want to believe that their work is flawless, or if not flawless, better than it actually is. That's why resistance to structured defect discovery activities is often little more than a manifestation of the dynamics of confirmation bias.
- The most straightforward At times, confirmation bias tends
to reinforce our preconceptions
about managing and about the
people we manageform of resistance is direct opposition. People might complain about the activity's effectiveness, or about the burden it places on busy people, or about the return on investment. But there are more subtle forms of resistance, too. For instance, some might withhold discovery of defects in one team's work product to return an earlier favor from others, or to incur a debt to be repaid later. Like lock-in, training in confirmation bias and its effects provides perhaps the best chance of controlling aversion to structured defect discovery activities.
For more on the Pygmalion effect, see "Pygmalion Side Effects: Bowling a Strike," Point Lookout for November 21, 2001. For more about the lock-in, see "Indicators of Lock-In: I," Point Lookout for March 23, 2011.
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- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.