Kevin sagged when he recounted his past few years as president of a troubled division of a major insurance company. “I’m damaged goods,” he started. “I loved my career until they promoted me to turn around this failing unit. I became a real jerk. I screamed at people. I was called a bloodthirsty mercenary by the press. I downsized so many people that employees here called me Darth Vader. Heck, I wouldn’t even work for me anymore.”
I was struck by Kevin’s searing self-criticism. I know him as a strong, yet humane leader with a great track record and a strategic viewpoint. In fact, his turnaround efforts were acknowledged by outsiders as both necessary and successful. How could he be drawing such negative conclusions about himself despite such a long history of success?
Confirming evidence bias
Researchers have been studying human decision-making for years. We know that our minds are not objective processors of information, despite our beliefs that they are. Rather, mental filters, or biases, affect how we assess and decide in complex situations. One of these filters is called “confirming evidence bias:” we arrive at conclusions prematurely based on what we already believe. Then, we seek evidence that supports these conclusions while minimizing any information that contradicts our predetermined decision. We humans may be clever, but we are not as logical as we think.
I know this bias all too well. I recently piloted a brand-new leadership development program for a new client under atypical circumstances. I knew little about them in advance, other than most participants were new to the company, and all were transitioning into new positions.
My primary role was to learn new content my partner was presenting so I could lead future programs. We agreed for me to teach the components I was familiar with, so I could focus on what I needed to learn for future sessions.
As luck would have it, each piece I presented touched a painful nerve with the participants. I learned that many in the group felt “surprised” by the culture of the company they had joined, and some even felt misled by the recruiting process. You can imagine the ‘venting’ that took place.
Now, this is not my first rodeo, and I’ve made a career of facilitating challenging groups. However, I had not prepared for this client the way I normally would. I had less ownership of the program and less conviction about my role in it.
When my work with the group did not have the intended impact, I immediately decided ‘I did something wrong.’ Then I started looking for evidence to confirm it. And of course there was plenty: I used the wrong word in my intro, I took too long to tell an illustrative story, I didn’t redirect a participant when he went off topic, I wore the wrong color shoes, etc.
Having decided that I was the problem, and confirmed it with the evidence I selected, I made matters worse as I worked hard to fix it: I memorized material, talked longer, provided more detailed instructions, and took things more seriously than is customary for me. As I ventured further from my natural self I felt my self-confidence slipping away.
Premature decisions must be challenged
That evening, I revealed to my partner the turbulence I was feeling. Though he had noticed I was acting differently than usual, his conclusions included a wider range of data: He brought up the size of the group (n=40 participants, a large crowd), the business context (merging cultures amid a reorganization), and even the training room we were in (so big participants had to use microphones). While he didn’t let either of us ‘off the hook,’ he was perplexed to understand the conclusions about myself I had been drawing.
My premature conclusion had blinded me to other relevant data. I had put myself at the center as the cause of the situation, which limited how we could deal with the issues. With a more comprehensive view, we returned to our rigorous program design process that reminded me of the consultant I know myself to be.
Our program ended with crescendos of insight. Participants articulated their many take-aways and how they couldn’t wait to apply some of the tools they learned. The client booked us to repeat the program in eight locations next year. This was not what I would have expected 24 hours earlier when looking through my much narrower lens.
The ancient wisdom of the Talmud sums this up best: “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” My client Kevin and I, and I believe most of us, can take that advice to heart.