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Volume 11, Issue 48;   November 30, 2011: Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II

Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II

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We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management processes.
Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition for Mars Climate Orbiter

Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition, sending the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) to Mars in December, 1998. The spacecraft eventually broke up in the Martian atmosphere as a result of what is now often called the "metric mix-up." The team at Lockheed Martin that constructed the spacecraft and wrote its software used Imperial units for computing thrust data. But the team at JPL that was responsible for flying the spacecraft was using metric units. The mix-up was discovered after the loss of the spacecraft by the investigation panel established by NASA.

One of the many operational changes deployed as a result of this loss was increased use of reviews and inspections. While we do not know why reviews and inspections weren't as thorough before the loss of the MCO as they are now, one possibility is the effects of confirmation bias in assessing the need for reviews and inspections. Image courtesy Engineering Multimedia, Inc., and U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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
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 manage
form 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.

If you doubt that confirmation bias affects your own management processes, examine your doubts for signs of confirmation bias. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: When Change Is Hard: I  Next Issue

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.

[Livingston 1991]
J.S. Livingston, "Pygmalion in Management," Harvard Business Review, reprint #88509, in The Best of the Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Press, 1991. Back

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