Is confirmation bias cramping your leadership?

Confirmation bias – a tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories – is a nasty little critter we need to watch out for as leaders.

You may have noticed this insidious decision-making villain running rampant during election season. We subconsciously seek out information that supports our favoured candidates and negatively portrays the opposing candidates.

When it comes to leadership, confirmation bias can distort our decision-making like nothing else.

This snippet from the book, On Making Smart Decisions (featuring “Before You Make That Big Decision…” by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony), explains why we need to take stock of this phenomenon:

“A team that has fallen in love with its recommendation, for instance, may subconsciously dismiss evidence that contradicts its theories, give far too much weight to one piece of data, or make faulty comparisons to another business case.That’s why, with important decisions, executives need to conduct a careful review not only of the content of recommendations, but of the recommendation process.”

Here are 6 ways to prevent confirmation bias running riot in your leadership:

1. Seek contrary evidence

Especially on those decisions with significant impact. When you are REALLY hot on your proposed idea.

2. Be self-aware

Regularly ask yourself these questions:

  • How wed am I to this idea?
  • How could my enthusiasm and passion be blindsiding me?
  • If I was to play Devil's Advocate in this situation, what could that offer up?
  • How can looking at this from another perspective make the way forward more robust?
  • What if I entertained the idea for a moment that I held incorrect assumptions in this instance?
  • What are at least two arguments against my current position?

It's more difficult to do this than you think!

3. Get your people to challenge your thinking on a regular basis

Don't take a leaf out of Kim Jong Un's book, who executes those officials who dare challenge him. Make it safe for those you lead to disagree with you. See here for more ideas on how. Seek counsel from those who you respect and will tell you how it  is really, even when you don't want to hear it.  

4. Seek experiences and people beyond your circle of comfort

Travel. Learn about others' cultures. Spend time trying to understand the perspective of those whose opinions you vehemently disagree with. Do this with the energy of purely trying to understand them, not being positional or trying to convert them to your thinking.

5. Regularly reflect on trends in your decision-making

There's nothing wrong with knowing your values and being clear on your direction. It's another story if you are being dogmatic, static or stuck in your thinking. Ask "what is something I used to believe in passionately, but which now I'm not so sure?" If you can’t answer, it’s not a good sign.

6. Listen

Often. And deeply. My last Idealog article shows why this is a great skill to develop. If you are listening in this way, it’s less likely you will fall victim to confirmation bias.

A type of confirmation bias nearly all leaders are guilty of is the process by which we give undue weight to early evidence. By accepting early information, we risk creating a bias which affects our view of any later evidence.

Suzi McAlpine is a leadership development specialist and author of The Leader's Digest blog