Managerial blindness

Photo by Andréia

A few days ago I read a fascinating article in Wired magazine titled: Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. The article describes why it is so hard for people to learn from failure and talks about the importance of diversity and of checking our own assumptions when we fail at something. As I am fascinated by the conventional wisdoms that seem to stick to the world of management despite the abundance of research to suggest that these practices are just wrong, I was captivated by the article and some of the research it describes. I decided to quote a few gems from the article and add a few comments of my own.

We are not as objective as we think:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

This is something we have to remember as managers. First, when we communicate with people, they will see in it and hear in it what they want and always what we say. They are pre-wired to look for information that fits their preconceptions. That means we have to work extra hard at making people understand what we say. Second, when we try to make a decision, be it a business decision or a decision about an employee, we need to be very careful and create a process that really objectifies the decision. It is not enough to decide according to the data, we also need to make sure that we aren’t ignoring the important data. Playing the devil’s advocate, explaining it to somebody else or getting a fresh opinion are all good ideas. It is less important what we do than that we actually do something beyond our own attempt at objectivity. Third, learning from failure is not something obvious and we must work hard on it.

Belief, in other words, is a kind of blindness:

The lesson is that not all data is created equal in our mind’s eye: When it comes to interpreting our experiments, we see what we want to see and disregard the rest. The physics students, for instance, didn’t watch the video and wonder whether Galileo might be wrong. Instead, they put their trust in theory, tuning out whatever it couldn’t explain. Belief, in other words, is a kind of blindness.

This is a great explanation for many of the managerial conventional wisdoms. Let’s say you believe in the simple carrot and the stick or in telling employees what to do. These are your preconceptions. And you will look for evidence that they are working. And if they don’t work, because they consistently don’t give amazing results, you don’t change your belief. You find excuse or something else to blame for this failure. Probably the employees themselves. They are lazy. They are stupid. It is the Gen Y. They don’t appreciate everything I do for them.  There is of course no way your beliefs or conventional wisdoms are the problem. Let’s cure our managerial blindness.


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