Monday, October 6, 2008

Your Leadership Bias

Can you guess the name of the leader described below?

Who am I?

-- A new chief executive, one of the youngest in his nation's history, is being sworn into office on a cold and cloudy day in January.

-- He was raised a Catholic.

-- He rose to his new position in part because of his vibrant charisma.

-- He is revered by the people and will play a crucial role in a military crisis that will face his nation.

-- His name will become legendary.

Most Americans will conclude that the leader is John F. Kennedy before they reach the third point, and they will be wrong. The correct answer is Adolf Hitler according to Matthew May. (1)

Why do we get the wrong answer? In a word, bias. Most Americans have a picture in their mind of Kennedy on that cold Inauguration Day. Most also know that he was the first Catholic president. This sets up a shortcut in our thinking that filters the rest of the statements to confirm our bias. How much are your biases affecting your leadership thinking?

Researchers from Harvard Medical School replicated in a lab the process of screening for weapons at airports. Study participants screened bags for dangerous objects after being told how often these how objects would appear. When they were told that the objects would appear 50% of the time, participants had a 7% error rate. But when they were told that the objects would appear only 1% of the time, the error rate skyrocketed to 30%. (2) We tend to see what we expect. Tell me what a leader believes and I'll tell you what he sees.

Professors at Columbia and New York University tested leaders’ perceptions about their industry. (3) They surveyed 70 managers about sales growth, sales fluctuations, industry trends and so forth. The researchers then compared the leaders’ answers with published market reports and statistics. More than half of the executives made grossly inaccurate statements about sales in their very own business units. About one third of them underestimated sales, while 25% overestimated sales. These researchers followed up with another study involving 47 senior leaders. They studied the manager's perceptions of their company’s quality improvement programs. The accuracy of the responses by those directly managing quality programs was off by as much as 75%. These leaders were biased by the idea that they were monitoring their environment closely, but they were not. To paraphrase Will Rogers, what you don't know may hurt you, but it's what you do know that it isn't so that'll kill you!

Here are six practical tips to help you take off the blinders, overcome your biases, and keep yourself from getting hurt:

Know what you are looking for. When Secret Service agents scan a crowd, they can easily detect an individual reaching into the pocket or moving forward in the crowd because they know what they are looking for. How about you?

Solicit outside perspectives. It's always best to assume you're missing something and to ask questions about it. If you have too many yes-people around you, pay for outside perspectives (and “deselect” a few of the yes-people).

Challenge the absence of disconfirming evidence. When you listen to arguments or read a report without contradicting data, watch out. That should raise a red flag. Invite others to play the devil's advocate and argue contrary positions.

Operationalize information diversity. How can you make considering numerous points of view the norm for your team? One executive I coach makes it a habit to go to the front lines and ask those who are doing the work for their input. Another has made one person responsible for assembling information from multiple sources.

Applaud ignorance. Many of the meetings I used to attend as an executive involved people in the meeting trying to look good in front of each other. I can't believe I was caught up in that silly game, but I was. The problem with trying to look good is that people think that admitting you don't know makes you look bad. As a leader, if you start saying “I don't know, let’s find out,” and applauding those who do, others will follow. Cultivate and celebrate truth tellers.

Avoid “home on the range” meetings. I once consulted with an organization that conducted meetings where “seldom was heard a discouraging word.” They were afraid to engage in any conflict. Cognitive conflict actually improves decision-making and results. It's emotional conflict that causes difficulty. Teach your team the difference.

Citicorp's former CEO, Walter Wriston says that he has driven through many rainstorms, listening to some radio announcer in a windowless room telling him that it's a sunny day. He says that the biggest mistake a leader can make is not recognizing the changing economic climate. His advice, never stop looking out the window. My advice, use these six ideas to help you understand what you see.

Keep on stretching,


1. Matthew May: The Perils of Bias, ‘Consulting to Management,’ 16, 3, September, 28 -- 31, 2005.

2. Cited in Max Bazerman and Dolly Chugh: Decisions Without Blinders, ‘Harvard Business Review,’ January 2006, 88 - 97.

3. John Mezias and William Starbuck: What Do Managers Know, Anyway? ‘Harvard Business Review,’ May 2003, 16 - 17.

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