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.
It begins with a person’s existing beliefs.
It was noisy in the meeting room as the construction workers assembled early one morning. The concrete floor and cinder block walls created an echo chamber for the men’s voices and the squeaking of metal chairs being pushed into place. Spartan furniture and a dusty, bare floor were tell-tale signs that this room was used occasionally for crew meetings, but not much else. Some folding tables on one side of the room strained under the weight of 3-ring binders and manuals stacked half-way to the ceiling. Another table in the back held a large coffee urn and numerous boxes of doughnuts, most of which had already been claimed.
While Russ went to the front of the room to get the projector running, I settled into a metal chair beside the doughnut table, fighting the urge to grab one of the few remaining sugary treats. Russ was the internal trainer. He was scheduled to talk to the group for the first hour.
The class about safety culture and leadership had been requested by the contractor’s leadership team. The company recently had some serious injuries and near misses. They were anxious to see what could be done to prevent another event.
The managers were perplexed why some of their guys were taking risks, even though they had implored them to “be careful.” Even more disturbing, it seemed as though someone was making a mistake on the job almost every week. While all of these were small errors, the senior managers knew that any one of these mistakes could cause significant property damage or result in another injury under different circumstances.
As Russ went through the introductory slides and started the first class exercise, a burly man dressed in blue jeans and a shirt that appeared to be one size too small abruptly emerged from an office which adjoined the conference room. The name plate and title above the door indicated that Ed was a supervisor. Ed yanked his office door closed behind him, causing a loud thud when it met the door jamb. I heard him mutter a couple of expletives as he walked briskly by my chair and walked heavily down the stairs on the far side of the room. Continue reading
Image courtesy of Atlantic Training
One of my summer jobs was working at a busy warehouse, filling wooden pallets with various orders of canned fruit or juice products. Forklifts then loaded the pallets on a trailer for shipping.
I remember the day I filled out the employment application. The job was on second shift. It was hard to find anyone who wanted to work these hours, so I was hired. The woman from human resources asked me if I could start working the same night. I showed up 30 minutes before my shift for orientation. While I don’t recall everything that was said, the supervisor’s safety expectations were memorable. The speech from Lyle went something like this:
“Most of these guys have been working here for more than 15 years. So ask them anything you want to know. The work isn’t that hard, but you can expect to get a few minor injuries before the summer is over. Nothing serious – maybe a gash from a box cutter or a sore toe from a case that is dropped accidentally. No open-toed shoes, by the way. There’s a first aid kit in the break room. If you need something more than a bandage or ointment, come see me. Now look, the number one thing you need to remember is that those guys running the forklifts are moving fast. The sooner we get these trucks loaded, the more time we all have at the end of the shift to relax. So stay clear of them at all times. They have the right-of-way in the aisles. Any questions?”
What questions would an 18-year-old ask? I had none.
“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso
As the engineering manager of a large manufacturing facility, Rick had a knack for identifying talent. Whether he was recruiting on campus or interviewing candidates with some experience, Rick had a set of criteria that guided his decision-making. It started with GPA and class rank, but also included other accomplishments such as patent applications, publications, research grant awards, and other recognition. Everyone agreed that Rick attracted the best and brightest professionals to join his staff. Rick recruited for exceptional talent.
At the same facility, Karen provided leadership for a process control group. She would accompany Rick on many of the campus recruiting visits. Karen and Rick pursued their respective candidates from essentially the same pool. However, Karen had a different perspective. She wanted to learn about each candidate’s work and social background. She was keen to learn about how they overcame obstacles, struggled to succeed, and learned from their mistakes. The candidates who received offers to join Karen’s group were often (on paper) “second-tier” talent. Each person had solid grades and had the skills needed for the job, but they were not exceptional. Karen recruited for growth potential.
What happened when these employees joined the company? It is a tale of two divergent philosophies.