Confirmation bias is easy to define but harder to spot when it's happening. It can prevent you from making solid data-driven decisions. It can lead to sub-par firing decisions. And it can make you quit a job that might be the best thing for you. Establishing objective processes for information-gathering ahead of time can help you avoid confirmation bias when it hits and prevent you from making bad choices.
In business, I’ve heard confirmation bias referred to more often than other biases. It’s the tendency to dismiss evidence that contradicts previously-held beliefs and seek out evidence that supports those beliefs.
If you’re not familiar with it, you should be. It keeps you in a hole.
If you are familiar with it, don’t assume you can catch it while it’s happening. It’s called a “bias” for a reason: it happens under the radar, when we aren’t expecting it to strike. Which is why being aware isn’t enough.
To prevent it, two things need to happen: first, concrete, real-business situations impacted by it should be identified; and second, preventative hacks should be implemented.
Here are three real situations in which confirmation bias can hit, and some hacks to keep you safe:
1. When you’re making data-driven decisions. Business operations and customer insights teams should be wary of favoring evidence that supports what leadership expects to see. Leadership should be wary of rejecting data that doesn’t align with their already-drawn conclusions.
I’ve more than once submitted research results to C-level executives who responded with: “I don’t buy it.” When it comes to data, if it's gathered and analyzed scientifically, there’s nothing to buy. It’s not a sales pitch; it is what it is. If you or others tend to react this way to data, confirmation bias may be a problem.
The best way to avoid this bias is to focus on process rather than results. If analysts are on the hunt for specific bits of data while ignoring other bits, or if researchers write bad survey questions, then there may be a problem. But if the process meets high standards of objective rigor, then confirmation bias, and not data, may be the issue.
A good hack is to establish best practices up front for data collection, analysis, and interpretation – before you’re exposed to results you don’t like. Hire a consultant (like me) if you want to make sure this is happening.
Loyalty to unbiased processes should always trump loyalty to a belief. Otherwise, you can believe untruths and, frankly, make decisions that suck.
2. When you’re making management or firing decisions. Ever wonder why that one person who shirks, underperforms, and causes problems for everyone else is still around? Managers do better when their team members perform well, but time and again they hang onto employees that just aren’t cutting it. And the whole team suffers.
Any good HR professional can explain why you don’t just want to fire people at the first sign of trouble. Your people are an investment. But some investments are better than others, and sometimes managers hang on to an employee only because they’ve decided, long ago, that the employee is awesome. Evidence of poor performance is dismissed or rationalized away. Evidence of rare good performance is given more weight than it deserves.
We all want to believe our employees are stellar. If we hired them, we did so because we thought they were great. Changing our minds is hard to do because it forces us to question our own judgment. But no one is perfect, and no one makes perfect judgments. Better to see things as they are and let go when it’s really time to let go. Otherwise, your whole team can suffer for it.
The hack here is to be very clear about what success looks like for each of your employees on a day-to-day basis. We think about these objective standards of good performance around review time, but it's worth keeping them top of mind year-round. Is missing deadlines not acceptable? Then keep track of it. Is misunderstanding direction not tolerable? Then make a note of when it happens.
In other words, gather objective data.
This might sound a bit "big brother" but it's more fair than relying on bias. You can't encourage or train your employees to be their best if bias is keeping you from knowing what's going on in the first place.
3. When you’re deciding whether to quit your job. Dissatisfaction with management happens. But when it makes you want to leave, it’s worth checking to see if confirmation bias, and not legitimately poor management, is driving your decision. Especially in this economy.
Employees can hurt their chances for professional stability and growth when they fail to see their managers as they are, rather than as they wish them to be. When employees form negative opinions about their managers, usually because of negative early experiences, and then fail to change their minds in light of new evidence, they can leave a company for the wrong reasons, and perhaps deprive themselves of opportunities in the long run.
Most managers are, like most humans, flawed. Some will never get it right. But if your manager rubs you the wrong way on day one, you may ignore their attempts to improve. You may dismiss their feedback while hunting down pats on the back from everyone else on or outside your team.
I’ve seen it happen. It isn’t classy.
Here’s a hack for you: ask your manager for a clear set of guidelines that define success in your particular role. If they can’t articulate any, that’s a bad sign. If they can, but the objectives don’t align with your understanding of the role or with what you are honestly capable of, then it’s worth talking with your manager about redefining your role (if there’s room for it), and also figuring out what you need to do to step it up.
Only after those options don’t work for you should you consider leaving. Quitting a job impulsively isn’t a usually great decision.
Beliefs are tricky.
Beliefs make us who we are but they can also blind us to reality, especially if we only value evidence that confirms what we already believe. Like with anything else, in business, the more you see things as they are rather than as your beliefs dictate them to be, the better your chances of building solid business decisions on real information.
Reach out to learn more about how Kabiri Consulting can help you hack your company biases.