Blinded by Bias — 5 reasons why leaders might be last to understand what goes on in the business

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A couple of years ago, at a company I worked for, we brought in a consultant to work with our management team.

He had quite a personality and a highly unorthodox and uncomfortable approach that took our managers far beyond their comfort zone — luckily it turned out to be very beneficial in the end.

I learned a lot just through witnessing how he worked with our team, and one of the things that I can still remember crystal clear today is this saying of his:

“Common sense is not so common. That is why we pay consultants.”

At the time, everyone had some good laughs about that; I did too, and then I stopped to think about the value of what he said.

Very often, businesses bring in consultants when “something goes wrong”. Either because results are not where they need to be, or because there’s a strange dynamic in certain teams or departments that couldn’t be successfully shifted and transformed despite best efforts of internal team members.

I have to admit, sometimes I was frustrated to see how the same message I was trying to convey internally was not heard, but when a consultant came in and said the same things, it echoed far deeply and made an impact. I took it personally then, as a failure of mine.

Now I understand there are many reasons why bringing in outside expertise is far more effective to create deep transformation. One of them has to do with the fact that any outsider has, by default, a better chance to create change just because he or she is that: an outsider that has no previous history or bonds with the group. They’re neutral, which is incredibly important for facilitating transformational work.

I am currently reading about using constellations — a method of work created in family therapy — in organisational contexts. Continuing the line of systems thinking, it is fascinating to hear about how an organisation is a living system in itself, and that relationships and interactions between team members are more influential in the business than we want to admit.

Most of the people who manage to be successful in leadership/executive positions have done so partly because they have very thoroughly sharpened their logical reasoning, and their ability to work with facts, figures, move “beyond” their emotions and just operate with a “cool head”.

Those are all important abilities for success — for example, if you wanna push for profitability, you need to be persevering and focused on meeting that goal and not lose sleep at night over the fact that you have cut budget for training or for other perks. You need to focus on the long term sustainability of the business and you understand that, sometimes, disappointing a lot of employees today over cutting benefits ensures they all have jobs in the future or maybe an even better shot at a more generous benefits package afterwards.

Behind the surface, though, performance in leadership and impressive results are backed by a series of inevitable biases that make it very difficult for leaders to objectively evaluate their impact:

Here’s a couple of biases that are very commonly experienced:

  1. Defensiveness. Whenever each one of us gets criticised or “attacked”, our natural reaction is to fight against that and prove how those who criticise us are wrong. The higher the amount of work and effort we put in to achieve a goal, the higher the sacrifice we put in a job, the more we risk for it, the higher our instinct to defend it will be. In other words, more successful leaders are even more prone to be defensive and get very good at dismantling critique and failure through elaborate argumentation.
  2. Confirmation bias. This refers to our tendency to look for and highlight information and evidence that supports our beliefs and values, and, subsequently, to avoid and ignore information that invalidates our beliefs and values. Again, leaders are usually people with strong beliefs and values, and who get continuous training and rewards to become increasingly strong in their beliefs. Psychologically speaking, the game we play is this one: if I am a leader in this company, I must have (or develop) firm belief that we are the best at what we do — as leader, you act from that belief, you are the biggest proponent of that belief inside and outside the organisation and then that becomes the main lens through which you perceive your company. Holding this position makes it tempting to continuously (and unawarely) look for evidence to support that belief: you focus and talk about the KPIs and results that are above market standards, you look for and promote stories of success and engagement and happiness in the company. Hearing the opposite — facing failure, admitting mistakes, actively seeking to identify where you fall below the bar — is a painful endeavour one generally would really prefer to avoid.
  3. Loyalty. We are social beings and that is paramount for our survival and thriving. We operate from within a set of very strong, universal rules in terms of how groups (teams) function. Loyalty is a very strong unwritten rule for cohesive teams. Loyalty to a principle, loyalty to a leader — are must-have ways of acting in the group, essential to the formation of trust and psychological safety. The downside of loyalty is it gets into extremes and can easily become loyalty despite flaws and risks — for example, out of loyalty for a previous department head, team members might be very motivated to prove the newly recruited head cannot be successful and will fail. It is rarely a conscious decision from them to sabotage the success of the new leader, but it is what deep loyalty for the previous leader will drive them to do.
  4. Retribution. We do a lot of work to develop and polish ourselves as professionals, especially as leaders. We genuinely do our best to move beyond the usual human temptations such as animosity, jealousy, envy, urge to compete with others, being threatened by others’ success, etc. We perform the dance of feedback quite correctly, but shallowly most of the times. Could you imagine admitting to yourself how your lack of cooperation with a peer comes from the fact that they are always late to meetings with you? Or from that one time when you dropped everything to help them with a project, but they forgot to acknowledge your contribution when they successfully presented to others and got credit for what you perceive to be your solution? We can never transcend our human nature, as much as we would want to or work to achieve. At some level, we still are and always will be like those toddlers who get upset with each other over the silliest things and then seek for revenge. The difference is, as toddlers we have no motivation to hide that we are doing that. We have no status or image to protect. But as leaders, as successful adults… there’s a huge status we are really working hard to maintain.
  5. Fanatism of personal mission. I have recently discovered this gem of an insight in a book, saying how we humans are essentially horrified and saddened by the fact that one day, we will be gone from this Earth. For our minds, for our Egos, it is painful to consider that someday we will not exist anymore, and the world will carry on just fine without us. We devise many “solutions” to make sure some of us carries on into the world — either by raising kids or, more and more these days, by making a difference and leaving our mark in the world. As we mature, we make decisions about what our legacy will be. When we find that one thing that really resonates with our being, that one thing we want to create, we become very motivated to build that and bring that into life. Now imagine I have to work with colleagues whose mission clashes with mine: without outside mediation from a facilitator who has the depth and clarity to understand what is happening, we might be caught in a loop of battles to determine which of our missions is actually more important and deserving. And, of course, that’s a game that clearly has no winners.

Some of you might be left feeling really down by these lines. It seems like there are strong psychological and inter-relational forces at work that make it really difficult for you to succeed, to have that ability to see clearly into the success and health of your business.

I will remind you again this is all natural and part of being human.

I strongly advise you to not launch yourself into endeavours of eradicating these biases, but rather to develop curiosity and an ability to challenge yourself to flip your perspective from time to time.

Last, but not least, leaders should always get support for continuous development and coaching. Regardless of how classic and traditional this notion is, it is very clear that it is leaders who set the tone in the business. I strongly believe that a priority in any business should be investing in development of their leadership teams, and that is one of the biggest contributors to sustainable growth.

It is also important to say that when I talk about “development”, I emphasise the need for development that creates reflection, insight, ability for leaders and for teams to observe themselves, their work relationships and their results as objectively as possible. Development that brings in new information, new methods of working, best practices is important — but development which brings insight, understanding and transformation is essential.

Leadership Coach & HR Leader