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Being above bias as essence of leadership

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Leadership. Photo: MHEI

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will come up with something better,” so wrote the great economics researcher, Edward Catmull, describing how people are ultimately more important than ideas. As leaders, one of our cardinal responsibilities is to find and develop talent.

First of all, we must get the right people. We cannot accomplish great things without great people. A cabinet of ministers cannot give what it doesn’t have. People want to stick around a leader who helps them grow. We want to work with a leader who helps us accomplish things we never dreamed of. That is what makes work exciting.

Many leaders fail in this respect because they fail to recognise key developmental needs. The good news is that this failing is preventable. We need greater control over our own minds. Whether we realise it or not, we’re all biased.

“The confidence people have in their beliefs isn’t the measure of the evidence, but the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.” That is the view of the Nobel winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman in describing how internal biases shape our beliefs and encourage our own minds to mislead us. We are used to associating biases with discrimination and prejudice. But the researches of Kahneman and Amos Tversky repeatedly showed that we are all susceptible to bias in some way.

Our minds are constantly looking to conserve energy. So, we develop mental shortcuts to more easily process new information and make difficult decisions. But while these biases reduce our cognitive burden, they also result in poor judgments. And as leaders, these biases often affect how we assess and develop personnel, thereby limiting the effectiveness of our leadership and organisations. If we hope to develop people and build the best teams, we must recognise these biases and account for them. As the English mathematician and philosopher, William Clifford wrote in his 1877 essay: The Ethics of Belief, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

And while there is no shortage of biases that impact our decision- making, there are a couple that constantly impact personnel development and limit a leader’s overall effectiveness. Thus, we have to choose to manage them or they will manage us. In assessing characters, a halo effect occurs when one positive feature dominates how we view someone, causing us to excuse negative tendencies, thus overlooking key weaknesses. In such situations, we overlook opportunities for people to grow. And we select candidates based on a limited set of characteristics. Kahneman’s advice in overcoming these weaknesses is in finding alternative perspectives to balance your own thoughts. While individual views may be biased; the average input of knowledgeable peers tends to be much more accurate.

Kahneman also affirmed of availability bias, “People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory- and this largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.” Availability bias causes us to overly value experiences that have happened recently and are more readily available in our memory. An example of the foregoing is how sharks actually save swimmers’ lives as shown below. “Careful analysis of deaths in the Ocean shows that on average, the death of each swimmer killed by a shark saves the lives of ten others. Every time a swimmer is killed, the number of deaths by drowning goes down by a few years and then returns to the normal level. This occurs because when reports of death by shark attack are remembered more vividly than reports of drownings.”

Similarly, when leaders assess individuals from memory, they overly weight the most retrievable instances. To counteract this bias, try to assess performance more frequently. Replace the outdated model of annual performance assessments with monthly or quarterly reviews.

People then gain much more frequent feedback and have many more opportunities to improve.

Moreover, we should develop and share objective criteria for people’s success. Having a specific set of criteria removes the subjectivity of remembered interactions, focusing assessments on actual results. The world’s greatest investor, Warren Buffett once talked about confirmation bias in an interview: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” For anyone to have seen two people look at the same evidence, yet hold opposing views on the matter, such a person has witnessed confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias reflects our tendency to selectively accept information that confirms our existing beliefs while rejecting information that contradicts them. Confirmation bias plays on our desire for consistency. Which is why we associate inconsistency with indecisiveness and a lack of reliability. While we correlate consistency with reliability and rationality. Since our minds are always looking for shortcuts to save energy, once we make up our minds about an issue, we really seldom think hard about the issue anymore.

In a world that sees changing your mind as a weakness, confirmation bias is a threat to human peace and stability. It keeps voters from recognizing poor past judgment and causes us to overlook negative qualities or fail to recognize a struggling worker’s attempts to improve. To counteract this bias, we have to separate our desire to be right from our desire to have been right.

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing where we are wrong. Thus, it blocks the progress of our knowledge. We must actively seek out evidence that challenges our initial impressions, constantly asking ourselves, “What would I need to see to change my mind?” We must be ready to change how we look at potential evidence. Never ever try to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it is yours. We’re all full of and surrounded by narrative fallacy. Which is why seeking sincerity in memoirs doesn’t make sense.

To counteract fallacy, we must identify objective criteria for success in advance. Accept from employees their own expectations for success and the method of measuring that performance. Moreover, researchers, affirm how each new skill effectively doubles your chance for success. Therefore, start managing your biases today. “The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high,”- Daniel Kahneman. Usually, we’re adept at recognizing biases in other people. Yet we tend to believe that these same heuristics don’t apply to ourselves. We think that our own minds are impervious to these documented tendencies. The truth is that we are all biased. The answer is for you to accept you’re biased and manage it before they start managing you.


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