How confirmation bias contributes to a culture of compliance

License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0. Attribution: Nick Youngson

Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs1. This biased approach to decision-making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information. Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant.

In a previous article, I outlined the differences between two distinct cultures – compliance and commitment.  This post describes how a confirmation bias can perpetuate a culture of compliance.  I will also discuss how the conversations that take place in a work place with a culture of commitment minimize the potential for confirmation bias.

Culture of Compliance

The model below explains how confirmation bias influences decision-making (and the actions taken by managers) when an organization is managed through compliance.

Confirmation bias - Compliance

It begins with a person’s existing beliefs.

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Your dangerous wandering distracted mind

wandering mindDistractions are everywhere in our world.  We can be distracted while driving, while working, or while doing any number of routine tasks. In the work place, incident investigations reveal that tens of thousands of injuries each year occur when people are not focused on the task at hand.

Most everyone recognizes the dangers associated with being distracted while driving a motor vehicle.  Distracted driving is a leading contributor to automobile crashes.  For example, here are just a few statistics from an organization dedicated to stopping texting and driving injuries and deaths:

  • Every year, about 421,000 people are injured in crashes that have involved a driver who was distracted in some way.
  • Each year, over 330,000 accidents caused by texting while driving lead to severe injuries. This means that over 78% of all distracted drivers are distracted because they have been texting while driving.
  • 1 out of 4 car accidents in the US are caused by texting while driving.
  • Texting and driving is 6 times more likely to get you in an accident than drunk driving.
  • It takes an average of three seconds after a driver’s mind is taken off the road for any road accident to occur.
  • Reading a text message while driving distracts a driver for a minimum of five seconds each time.
  • The chances of a crash are increased by 23 times when you are texting.

Error Rate and Distraction

A recent Michigan State University study provides supporting evidence that being distracted significantly increases human error (which can result in an accident).

Participants in this study were asked to perform a series of tasks in order, such as identifying with a keystroke whether a letter was closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet. Of course, a certain number of errors were made even without interruptions.

Occasionally the participants were told to input two unrelated letters — which took about 3 seconds — before returning to their task. These slight interruptions led to participants making twice as many mistakes when they returned to their sequencing task.

In addition, there are a number of studies and/or exercises which prove that humans cannot consciously complete more than one task at a time.  Indeed, one author has labeled the so-called skill of multi-tasking as “worse than a lie.”  No matter how you look at it, being distracted (for any reason) significantly increases the risk of making a mistake and/or being injured.

Unfortunately, we are not only distracted by something in our environment, but simply by the way our minds operate!

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The power of acknowledging and the price of ignoring

acknowledgingMost people understand that providing positive reinforcement is a proven way to encourage a desired behavior. But perhaps we don’t fully appreciate how powerful the simple act of acknowledging someone’s effort impacts their willingness to work – and therefore their productivity.  A fascinating study sheds light on the connection between acknowledgment and intrinsic motivation.

Researchers conducted an experiment to determine if simply acknowledging a person’s effort could increase their motivation to perform more work1.  The results may cause you to reconsider how you interact with others for whom you provide leadership or direction.

The experiment was set up as follows:

A stack of papers was created where letters of the alphabet were placed in random order on each sheet of paper.  Participants were given a single sheet and instructed to find all the pairs of identical letters that were next to each other.

When the first paper was completed, they were paid 55 cents.  The participant was then asked if they wanted to complete the same assignment (finding adjacent pairs of letters) on another sheet of paper for 5 cents less.  This process continued until the participant declined to do any more work. There were three conditions set up in this experiment. Each is described below. Continue reading

Do you have a people problem or a situation problem?

attribution errorAs a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”

[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].

In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue.  For example:

  • An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
  • A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
  • A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
  • An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
  • Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.

If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting.   In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.

A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology.  He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).

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How can we get employees to speak up (when they see risky behavior)?

Speak UpVictor has over 20 years experience in the warehouse.  You have a few years of experience and were just hired a few weeks ago.  Today, you are working as a team, unloading pallets of packaged materials that were delivered from the dock. As both of you approach the first pallet, Victor takes a position directly in front of the strapping that is straining under tension.  You see that this puts him in the line of fire. Instinctively, you take a step back when Victor pulls a pair of snips from his pocket to cut the strapping…

Do you speak up? Do you stop him?  Are you sure?

Perhaps you would say something.  But a surprising number of people in this situation would stay silent. Their thought process would be something like, “Surely he must know how to perform this task safely. He’s done it thousands of times.  I’m the rookie here.  Who am I to question his experience and job knowledge?”

Peer pressure is a powerful social influence.  Most of us are fearful of being considered an outcast if we are the dissenter, especially if we have less informal authority than other people in our natural work group.

You may think of peer pressure as overt statements from co-workers. “Look, this is the way things are done around here.”  But this is not always the case.  In the scenario above, Victor did not have to remind you about his seniority and experience.  It was implied and understood.

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Active Listening is Hard Work

active listeningHarry couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  It was shift change. Rob was leaving the locker room and headed toward the operating floor. His colorful athletic shoes were in stark contrast to the soiled and well-worn boots of the other guys around him.

Rob gave a slight nod of his head as he approached Harry, one of the shift supervisors.

“Hey, Harry.  Did the machine run well on first shift?  I sure hope I’m not walking into a mess in there.  After last week, I was hoping for a routine day at work.”

Harry wasn’t in the mood for small talk.  He just pointed down at Rob’s shoes and asked abruptly, “Speaking of walking, what are you thinking?  You know everyone is required to wear steel-toed shoes.  No exceptions!”

“Oh, those,” Rob countered, a little taken aback by Harry’s tone. “Let me explain…”

Harry interrupted him.  “No explanation needed.  It’s black and white.  Either you are wearing the right shoes or not.  And those are definitely NOT work shoes!”

“I know that,” Rob responded, the volume of his voice rising to match Harry’s. “I was just going to…”

Harry raised his hand and stopped Rob again.  “Look, you’re not going anywhere near the operating floor with those on your feet.  So either borrow a pair of shoes – or go home and get some proper foot protection – ‘cause you are not working today unless you have them.”

Rob crossed his arms and glared at Harry.  “Can you take one minute and listen?”

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