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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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How biased are you?


I’m sure we’d all answer immediately that we are not biased.  We all want to think of ourselves as rational people  who make well researched and considered decisions. Recent events would suggest that bias is more prevalent than any of us would wish, particularly when we  act as though nothing could possibly go wrong.  

Whenever research is undertaken, generally, people are shown to be much more optimistic that things they are involved in will go well. Some training, coaching and self help approaches promote optimistic thinking as a way of meeting life's challenges and being a happier and more successful individual.

Most of the time this is a good thing and like most people I’d rather be surrounded by those whose glass is half full rather than half empty, but there are some arenas where a bit of realism rather than Pollyanna-ish belief in the benevolence of the universe might be healthy.  As a training industry, we have embraced some facets of the positive psychology movement and Californian couch-crafted affirmations abound in some of the more pseudo-scientific reaches of our world.  If proof were needed, recent news stories would appear to confirm that this bias towards optimism is not always a good thing.

Frank Partnoy, the George E Barret Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego, writing in the Harvard Business Review, describes the collapse of Lehman Brothers as a series of snap decisions without concern for – or consideration of - the possible consequences.

Yet this was the culture of the organisation and – Partnoy argues – of the banks to this day.  “When Joe Gregory, the former president of Lehman, preached that employees should “go with their gut,” he was leading them in the wrong direction.”

Other serious issues are also affected by a collective opinion biased towards optimism.  Recent Oxford University research shows that of the 350 newspaper articles they analysed about climate change in the last 6 years, 80% included some caveats about the certainty of the science behind calls for a radical change in human behaviour to avoid catastrophe. 

Despite the overwhelming scientific belief that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity, a minute handful of climate change sceptics are disproportionately quoted. Scientific evidence is cautiously presented – the use of words such as ‘possibly’, ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’ reflect the journalists’ lack of confidence in climate science and also reflect a desire for the real picture on climate change - which 95% of scientists in the field agree with – to be something other than that shown by the latest research. There is evidence also that readers don’t want to be confronted with unpalatable truths and one could imagine editors and advertisers would also prefer a slightly rosier future to be described in the pages of their publications.

The desire to believe that things are better than they are also affects those involved in technology.  As this week’s revelations that the NHS cancelled patient records computer system has reached £10bn (and rising) blame is variously apportioned.  But the spiralling costs and ill managed contract terms are only a symptom of the optimism bias which seems to affect most IT projects.  Techies are terribly convincing when they tell the client that the technology will work, despite experience that technology rarely works (or at least rarely works first time) and despite track records of projects overrunning and delivering less than initially promised.

So what has this got to do with training?  Well, according to Frank Partnoy, forty-eight Lehman Brothers senior executives undertook a course in decision making and avoiding cognitive biases in 2005 – just a short time before making a series of decisions which led to their business’s collapse and triggered a worldwide financial crisis. As trainers we are often called upon to describe the ‘burning platform’ which makes change desirable if not imperative.  And yet, sometimes we want to quote the ‘balanced’ view, to present the message with a sweetener so that the messenger might get away without being fired at.  One of the problems with some training courses is the ‘sunny-day’ basis of the design.  Customers and colleagues are always helpful and fully engaged.  When we ask a well-crafted open question we always get the answer which provides the information we need. In the training programme, there is always enough time to do things properly and processes run like clockwork.  

As those using technology we have been guilty of over-promising and under-delivering on projects utilising eLearning modules or online collaboration. 

We encourage learners to hope for the best but plan for the worst and yet we (and those whose training we design and manage) continue to do the opposite. It would seem we are pre-disposed – if not pre-programmed - to do so.  If an optimism bias leads to poor decision making in our own organisations, we must acknowledge that some of the fault lies with the training we have provided. Has reflection become a habit in the business?  Have we challenged a culture which puts a premium on optimism (or at least on providing a good news gloss instead of the harsher realities)? 

As those charged with helping people learn we want to encourage people to reflect.  During that reflection process those with whom we work should consider all sides of an issue, including their unintended bias.  A continual learning process which includes reflecting and learning from previous projects and experiences would, I’m sure, make for better, more realistic decisions being made in the light of those experiences.  As Oscar winning screen writer, Harold Jacob Smith said: “Most people would learn from their mistakes, if they weren’t busy denying them”.

As trainers it might not make us that popular, but we do have a responsibility in organisations to present things as they are rather than as the organisation fervently wishes them to be. A few more grumpies around the place and we might save a lot of heart-ache.

Robin Hoyle is a trainer and consultant and the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement which is available from all good retailers and a few decidedly average ones.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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