The Post Office recently received a £58 million bill in damages after a court found that it had wrongly accused 550 sub-postmasters of theft, fraud and false accounting. As it transpired, the underlying problem was not the deceit and venality of the postmasters but a defective new IT system.
The real scandal is that, repeatedly over an unbelievable 19 years, the Post Office refused to see that its own system was at fault and instead blamed the hapless postmasters for all the inaccuracies and anomalies in the system.
This case is important as it is a classic example of beliefs (and this includes assumptions and self-beliefs) being a huge obstacle to successful problem solving, improvement planning and decision-making.
We cannot see what we do not already believe
Difficulties with beliefs arise due to a peculiar brain mechanism. Rather bizarrely, where new information conflicts with our existing beliefs, our brains automatically filter out this evidence from our conscious perception. In other words, our brain is wired so that we literally cannot see what we do not already believe.
When this deception occurs, we make what is termed a ‘premature cognitive commitment’.
In other words, we jump to a snap conclusion. The problem is that we do not base this new conclusion on available new evidence. Instead we pattern match the external situation with some existing belief or pre-conception. We can even pattern match with an emotional memory of some past event or situation.
Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias
Under normal conditions, the brain uses this filtering mechanism to help us make sense of a situation quickly. And most of the time, where circumstances are routine or have not changed, this process is useful as it helps speed up the way we function. The snag arises when things around us are different to what we assume to be the case. On these occasions and if we are not careful, this rough and ready pattern matching system prevents us learning what is truly going on. Furthermore, it can lead us to resist change and new information.
Essentially, the problem occurs because we are comfortable with our existing beliefs. On the other hand, being confronted with our inadequacy or fallibility is acutely uncomfortable to us; after all, conflicting evidence threatens several emotional needs including our need to feel competent and to have a sense of achievement. This threat and discomfort can be so intense it triggers a stress response known as ‘cognitive dissonance’.
The relevance to managing organisations is clear. Where the apparent facts contradict entrenched beliefs and assumptions, then cognitive dissonance compels us to do one of two things to reduce the discomfort:
Option one: we change our belief to match the revealed facts. This of course is the right approach but can be both scary and painful.
Or option two: we take the easy way out and try and preserve our belief by conducting what is known as ‘confirmation bias’. The term confirmation bias denotes how we subconsciously adopt subtle mind tricks to help us perpetuate our existing belief. This happy illusion naturally reinforces our blindness to the truth and is fairly ruinous when it comes to decision-making, successful problem-solving and coherent planning.
Typically, many of us plump for the second approach. And that means we adopt one or more of the following counterproductive tactics:
1. Pursue an energetic hunt for evidence that backs our existing beliefs
2. Passionately reject or refute the contradictory information without evidence
3. Misinterpret information to reinforce our beliefs
4. Seek support from others who share the beliefs,
5. Attempt to persuade others that our beliefs are valid anyway
6. Remember only what we want to remember (false or selective recall)
7. Attribute negative or ulterior motives to those with opposing views
Cognitive dissonance explains why senior managers so often meet bad news about their organisation with disbelief, as in the case of the Post Office. Quite simply the resultant stress response makes it difficult for those in charge of the system to accept any negative feedback that disrupts their comfortable worldview of how well they are running things.
The prevalence of confirmation bias in organisational life is the reason why negative feedback moves slowly up the hierarchy, if it moves at all. And why, as a result, senior management are so wrong about conditions at operational level and at the interface with customers and suppliers.
The peculiarity of the brain’s filtering system also explains one other perennial phenomenon of dysfunctional hierarchies. Where confirmation bias kicks in, managers often chastise or gag ‘whistleblowers’ who offer differing opinions or who expose unpalatable facts. In a healthy organisation, the very term whistleblower is an anathema. People giving management some negative feedback need to be embraced more as saviours who provide the very means for the organisation to improve and move forward.
The cure is to be aware of this particular characteristic of the mind and be alert to it. One way is to sit down with someone you trust and review some of your past decisions that did not work out so well. Check if this premature cognitive commitment kicked in at some point and ruined your decision. The real lesson is, do not get attached to your cherished beliefs, ideas and assumptions when they can get in the way of finding the truth.
Jeremy Old is a management coach and author of Reinventing management thinking – Using science to liberate the human spirit
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