Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 27;   July 1, 2020: On Standing Aside

On Standing Aside


Occasionally we're asked to participate in deliberations about issues relating to our work responsibilities. Usually we respond in good faith. And sometimes we — or those around us — can't be certain that we're responding in good faith. In those situations, we must stand aside.
Boeing 737 MAX grounded aircraft near Boeing Field, April 2019

Boeing 737 MAX grounded aircraft near Boeing Field, April 2019. After two fatal crashes, killing 346 people, all models of the Boeing 737 MAX were taken out of service and remain so as of this writing. The latest information is that a return to service is possible by September 2020. Final analysis of the flaws in organizational procedures that led to the problem is not yet available. However, investigations have found evidence that Boeing applied "undue pressures" to those of its own employees who had been charged with performing safety assurance work on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration. [FAA 2019] This pressuring behavior could have come about, in part, as a result of a conflict of interest on the part of the company. It was charged, simultaneously, with satisfying the conflicting demands of investors and the safety of the flying public. By contrast, when the FAA carries out its flight safety certification activities directly, that conflict is resolved. Image (cc) SounderBruce courtesy Wikipedia.

To carry out our professional responsibilities in good faith is to perform them in a way that balances the interests of people who rely on us for fairness. We must balance the interests of all stakeholders — the public, the organization, co-workers, subordinates, superiors, and customers or clients. It's a daunting list. And as the breadth of our responsibilities increases, the difficulties intensify.

Sometimes fairness and the appearance of fairness are simply out of reach. At those times, we must stand aside. We must let another take our place.

The need to stand aside usually arises from either a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest. Conflicts of interest that are in no way problematic arise frequently. Those conflicts are what we balance when we balance the interests of all those stakeholders. But some conflicts are problematic. The conflicts of interest that create a need to stand aside are those that involve conflicts — or the appearance of conflicts — between some stakeholders' interests and the interests of the decision maker.

In the realm of the law and justice, this standing aside is called recusal. Although there is no such fancy word for standing aside in other realms, the need to stand aside can arise anywhere. Knowing in advance what sorts of conditions create the need to stand aside can be helpful to anyone whose interests are affected by decision makers, including the decision makers themselves. In that spirit I offer this little catalog of factors that create or exacerbate a need to stand aside.

Personal interests
Personal interests in the outcome of a decision provide the clearest example of a need to stand aside. A fair decision balances the needs of all stakeholders. If the person making the decision benefits (or is harmed) in some way by that decision, objectivity is threatened. Making a fair decision in good faith can be difficult indeed when the decision maker's own interests are at stake.
In some cases, whether there is an actual conflict of interest can be less important than the question of the appearance of a conflict of interest. Decision makers might be confident that their personal interests don't affect their decisions, but if others have a different view, trouble looms.
For example, a decision to suspend funding for a project might be the right decision. But if the chief advocate of the project is a political rival of the person deciding to suspend funding, the decision to suspend funding has the appearance of a conflict of interest. The decision maker would do well to stand aside to allow another to decide the question of funding for that project.
Confirmation bias
In determining questions of the appearance of conflicts of interest, we must examine differences between the perspective of the decision maker and the perspectives of others. And that investigation inevitably raises the question of cognitive biases. One particularly relevant cognitive bias is confirmation bias. [Nickerson 1998]
Confirmation bias causes us to search for information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, and to interpret as confirming those beliefs whatever evidence we encounter, even if we didn't seek it. People who are affected by confirmation bias and who believe that the decision maker has a conflict of interest are more likely than others to search for evidence of that conflict. And they are likely to interpret whatever they find as confirming their pre-existing beliefs.
Similarly, a Knowing in advance what conditions
create a need to stand aside can
be helpful to anyone whose
interests are affected by
decision makers, including the
decision makers themselves
decision maker who believes that there is no conflict of interest in play is more likely to search for evidence confirming that belief, and less likely to search for evidence disconfirming that belief. And whatever is uncovered is likely to be interpreted in conformance with the decision maker's pre-existing belief that conflict of interest is not a factor.
When confirmation bias can affect detrimentally perceptions of the actions of the decision maker, wisdom suggests that standing aside might be an appropriate choice. And to guard against confirmation bias affecting the decision to stand aside, the decision maker would do well to seek the advice of a disinterested party.
Retrospective perspective
Situations in the present usually look different when we view them from some time in the future. This happens because we acquire new beliefs with the passage of time, and because we dismiss some old beliefs when we come to regard them as false. A decision that might now seem to be purely objective and untainted might therefore someday come to carry an appearance of a conflict of interest.
Predicting how or if retrospective perspective might change how we view our actions someday can be difficult. But if we know that a series of decisions is about to take place, and some of them might be at risk of carrying an appearance of a conflict of interest, a pattern of making questionable decisions can condemn the whole series, even if all of the decisions are fairly made. Standing aside can dramatically simplify our future lives.

In assessing the need to stand aside, the presence of one factor stands above all others as an indicator of the need to stand aside from a decision. That factor is the need to conceal. If there is something about the decision maker's personal or work situation that bears directly or indirectly on the matter at hand, and if that factor seems best concealed for any reason, almost certainly standing aside is the right choice. Go to top Top  Next issue: Multi-Expert Consensus  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[FAA 2019]
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. "Boeing 737 MAX Flight Control System: Joint Authorities Technical Review," October 11, 2019. Available here. Back
[Nickerson 1998]
Raymond S. Nickerson. "Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises," Review of General Psychology 2:2 (1998), 175-220. Available here. Retrieved 22 April 2021. Back

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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:

Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactanceCognitive Biases and Influence: II
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Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who tried to halt the launch of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986Risk Acceptance: Naïve Realism
When we suddenly notice a "project-killer" risk that hasn't yet materialized, we sometimes accept the risk even though we know how seriously it threatens the effort. A psychological phenomenon known as naïve realism plays a role in this behavior.
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Especially when time is tight, project sponsors sometimes ask their project managers to produce "reverse schedules." They want to know what would have to be done by when to complete their projects "on time." It's a risky process that produces aggressive schedules.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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