Most of us have no inkling how we developed our bedrock beliefs regarding management of people. We may even not know we cherish those assumptions until somebody challenges them, which reverberates to the core of our being. Managers often do not even articulate what they think they believe. Beliefs and values become intertwined with supposed facts (See my post of March 19, 2006: the false fact/value dichotomy.). Worse, our psychological makeup hinders us in a variety of ways.
Managers selectively attend to evidence that supports their beliefs about a person. If a metric, fact, or anecdote reinforces what they believe, they remember it – if evidence is to the contrary, they either never notice it, forget it, or discount it deeply (See my post of April 17, 2006: our tendency to seek confirming evidence; and April 27, 2005: information failures.).
Most managers, confronted with opposing beliefs, fall prey to cognitive dissonance. Where selective attention draws us to what makes us feel correct, cognitive dissonance drives us away from thoughts that cause conflict and uncertainty (See my post of April 5, 2007: theory of cognitive dissonance.).
We all succumb to peer pressure and collective coercion or blindness (See my post of Jan. 15, 2007 on group-think.).
Unwittingly, we pay too much attention to winners and not enough to the also-rans, we reason back from the successful examples, and therefore we succumb to the survivor bias. Where beliefs and actions did not lead to a good outcome, we rarely hear about those circumstances (See my post of April 2, 2005: the survivor bias.).
Beliefs harden over time and aren’t challenged (See my post of June 5, 2006: neurological changes as we learn.). Managers rarely test empirically or even question the people-beliefs they hold. Evidence-based management is an unusual trait among managers, most of whom rely on instinct (See my post of July 4, 2006: empirical research into management; and Aug.1, 2006: an example from outside counsel guidelines.).
Belief systems of individuals are disjointed amalgams that are frequently contradictory. For example, someone can espouse empowerment while being a control nut. Like values, beliefs make no pretense of being logically consistent (See my post of May 31, 2006: all management is based on values; and Sept. 17, 2006: expressed beliefs contrasted to espoused beliefs.).
What can a general counsel or any manager in a law department do to withstand these cognitive biases?
Start by trying to articulate your deeply-held managerial beliefs. If you can recognize your predilections, givens, instinctive expectations, and knee-jerk reactions, you can at least be on the lookout for the biases and distortions described above (See my post of Jan. 15, 2007: reasons why bonuses can be ineffectual.).
Second, try to be open to people and ideas that challenge your fixed assumptions about human behavior. Reconsider your experiences. Thaw a little and you may change for the better (See my post of Aug. 28, 2005: thoughts out of the box; and April 5, 2007: diagnosis momentum.).
A third safeguard is to surround yourself with people who think orthogonally to you, or at least in ways that either extend or push back on your own belief structures. You need people who legitimately think differently than you and have the courage to speak up on behalf of their beliefs (See my post of Nov. 8, 2005: contributions of HR reps.).
Finally, experiment. Try a different set of incentives or structure or recognition and keep an open mind as to the outcome of the experiments.