People often believe that an outcome was predictable or even inevitable, after they know what that outcome was. When we do this, sometimes we're right, but often our sense of predictability or inevitability is exaggerated. This perception is so common that psychologists have given it a name: hindsight bias. Because of hindsight bias, we tend to see causal connections between antecedent conditions and outcomes, even when those supposedly causal connections are false. We tend not to recall conditions that would introduce uncertainty in the outcome, or which would tend to produce dramatically different outcomes. And we do recall elements that didn't exist if they support explanations that predict what actually happened.
For example, in a written evaluation of a subordinate's performance, a supervisor might observe, "George's impulsiveness created toxic conflict, not only involving George, but also between other team members." Toxic conflict might well have occurred, but was George's impulsiveness really the cause? Or was it an effect? A more useful comment would have provided evidence for the supposed causal connection, and it would have addressed alternative explanations for the toxic conflict that did occur.
Here are three suggestions for managing the risk of hindsight bias in the workplace.
- Awareness is essential
- Ignorance of hindsight bias allows it to thrive. Educate all those responsible for interpreting past events. Give them the tools they need to detect hindsight bias in themselves and their own thinking.
- Accept that hindsight bias is a risk, and mitigate the risk
- Although awareness and sensitivity can reduce the incidence of hindsight bias, total elimination is almost certainly impossible. Cooperative action is required. For example, in the performance appraisal process, supervisor and subordinate can be encouraged to discuss the possible presence of hindsight bias in the appraisal, and then come to agreement that they have dealt with those possibilities. Introducing this idea into the appraisal process is an example of mitigating hindsight bias risk.
- Identify processes at risk of hindsight bias
- Some processes are especially vulnerable to hindsight bias. The two mentioned here — performanceIgnorance of hindsight
bias allows it to thrive appraisal and project retrospectives — are merely examples. Strategic decisions, including decisions such as reorganizations, acquisitions, relocations, downsizing, outsourcing, and more, are often subject to evaluation, and therefore hindsight bias risk. An inventory of all processes for hindsight bias vulnerability is a necessary element of any program to address the effects of hindsight bias.
After identifying those processes most susceptible to hindsight bias risk, mitigation is the next step. Mitigation approaches must suit the process, but effective measures include checks and balances along the lines of the approach indicated above for risk management in the performance appraisal process. Multiple viewpoints and healthy, vigorous dialog are essential. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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