From time to time, we become so involved in debating with each other that we can forget that for most issues we debate at work, Reality has the final say. It happens like this. We encounter a situation that has no obvious or immediate resolution. We debate the issue for a time, and finally settle on a path that nobody is really comfortable with. Then we push ahead, hoping that somehow it will all work out.
But Reality — not any debater's skill or stature — ultimately decides every question. Here's an example:
Some of us (the Visionaries) are inclined to believe that we'll easily meet the target date that has been set for us, using only the people and assets we already have in place. Others (the Pragmatists) argue that meeting the target date is impossible with what we have. To meet the target date, we'll need more people (or equipment, or software, or something else). Name-calling sets in; the Pragmatists call the Visionaries "Dreamers;" the Visionaries call the Pragmatists "Pessimists."
We go back and forth on this question, until someone who's highly respected — someone with "clout" whom I'll call Franklin — proposes a Compromise Approach. The Visionaries and Pragmatists agree to hire a few more people and acquire more powerful software. But although these measures were among those the Pragmatists wanted, much of what they wanted is excluded.
In scenarios like this, people don't seem concerned that Reality hasn't had a chance to contribute to the debate. Nobody has suggested a "pilot," and the Pragmatists failed to sway the Visionaries by citing the difficulties previous efforts have had. And so, Reality is set aside until Franklin's Compromise Approach is either successful — or not.
It's white-knuckle time.
What The person who has the clout isn't necessarily
engaged in nefarious activity. It's often the
person with clout who is thinking most cloutedly.has happened in scenarios like the one above might be regarded as analogous to the consequences of a cognitive bias known as the halo effect. [Thorndike 1920] The halo effect is our tendency to allow positive (negative) impressions of one attribute of a person, company, country, brand, product, or any entity, really, to positively (negatively) influence our assessment of other attributes of that same person, company, country, brand, product, or entity.
In the scenario above, both Visionaries and Pragmatists accept Franklin's Compromise Approach. It might be a good solution. But it's also possible that the halo effect has taken over. It's possible that their willingness to adopt Franklin's compromise was influenced, in part, by Franklin's stature — by his clout. Their thinking might have been something like, "Franklin knows his stuff, so maybe his idea will actually work."
And that's the problem. Franklin knows his stuff. He has a record of accomplishment in some specific domains in which he earned his clout. But is that record applicable to the matter at hand? Perhaps. In many cases it is applicable. But too often, the halo effect causes us to accept the suggestions of the Franklins of the world even when the domains in which they earned their clout aren't relevant to the matter at hand.
I call this pattern clouted thinking. The person who has the clout isn't necessarily engaged in nefarious activity. It's often the person with clout who is thinking most cloutedly.
Indicators of clouted thinking
Clouted thinking is one of the harmful effects of clout. Detecting clouted thinking can be difficult. But one aid in avoiding trouble is sensitivity to the kinds of comments people make when they're engaging in clouted thinking. Here are five indicators that the risk of clouted thinking is elevated.
- Discarding some evidence while crediting other evidence
- Knowing what to attend to and what to set aside is essential for resolving complex problems. Be alert to the arbitrary application of the technique. Inconsistency in what we accept or reject can be driven by a desire to reach a specific outcome.
- I prefer my opinion to yours
- Preference for one opinion over others is not evidence of the validity of that opinion. Preference for an opinion is not a reason to be guided by that opinion. Demand evidence.
- If you can't explain why it's happening, it isn't happening
- It's irrational to reject an observation of system behavior as invalid on the basis that no known model of the system can account for that behavior. Instead, when our models cannot account for system behavior, we must accept that our models of the system are incomplete or incorrect. Models can be wrong. Reality is always right.
- It can't (must) be true because people with clout say so
- Accepting as facts the assertions of people with clout is one way of detaching the debate from Reality. The pronouncements of people with clout then become facts for purposes of the debate. And unlike actual facts, pronouncements can be mistaken or fabricated. Demand Reality-based evidence.
- You're wrong, because you're contradicting someone with clout
- People with clout are typically correct more often than others, but they do make mistakes, too. And people who lack clout can occasionally report correct observations, or occasionally have good ideas. It's irrational to reject (or accept) a statement on the sole basis of its author's stature. Demand evidence.
The suggestions above mention the need for evidence repeatedly, but they don't define the term. Evidence is fact. Statements by reliable individuals are sometimes the closest we come to gathering facts. Statements, when taken as fact, can sometime lead us to clouted thinking. Handle statements with care. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
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- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable
to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion
of control" — might provide explanations.
- The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of
form and meaning as distinct, humans tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that
are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase
with its aesthetics.
- Bullet Point Madness: II
- Decision makers in many organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of a series of bullet points
or a series of series of bullet points. Briefers who combine this format with a variety of persuasion
techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions.
- Seven More Planning Pitfalls: I
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plans. But planning teams also suffer vulnerabilities. Two of these are Group Polarization and Trips
- Illusory Management: I
- Many believe that managers control organizational performance, but a puzzle emerges when we consider
the phenomena managers clearly cannot control. Why do we believe in Management control when the phenomena
Management cannot control are so many and powerful?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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