Feedback fallacy

Feedback? No thanks!

Antonio, marketing director of a multinational company, is a firm believer in the practice of 'continuous feedback' that has recently been introduced in the performance management cycle. Antonio thinks that, precisely through feedback, it is possible to develop the soft skills of his employees, not only their technical skills. That is why he never misses an opportunity to have individual interviews to give feedback on their assertiveness, on the empathy shown in relationships, on their ability to read the needs of internal and external customers. These weekly interviews begin with a series of so-called 'improvement' feedback, given on the parts of performance that did not satisfy Antonio, and end with a series of reinforcement feedback, on the parts of performance that were effective. Antonio is certainly a capable and exemplary manager, and the practice of feedback should certainly be encouraged - I think of how many people I have come across in organizations who have no idea what their managers see of their performance. In light of an interesting article, appearing in HBR 2019, by researchers Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall of ADP we can ask ourselves whether this ongoing practice is really beneficial for people's learning.

This blogpost will explore some questions, starting with observed practices and literature on the topic and in particular: does continuous feedback always increase our awareness? Does it always make us grow? Is it always a generator of learning? Providing, in the final part, some practical management ideas.

These questions recall certain beliefs and habits of thought with respect to feedback, derived largely from models inherited from a past in which the level of scientific knowledge had not yet allowed for the interdisciplinary understanding of its effects that we are beginning to have today, thanks also to IRM. I am thinking, for example, of a model I love very much, the famous Jo-Hari Window, created by Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham, named after the initials of its creators. And how much I have always enjoyed sharing with students and course participants an almost magical story about the fact that 'johari' in Sanskrit means 'he who possesses treasures and jewels' (I think read in a note in Enzo Spaltro's essay 'Subjectivity'). This hidden and mysterious meaning has always seemed to me a magical metaphor for how valuable the activity of giving and receiving feedback is in adding precious pieces to our identity, which we would otherwise have no way of integrating.

But some recent findings, particularly on negative feedback, show us how thinking that we will always achieve a goal of personal and professional growth through feedback can prove deceptive. This is the 'feedback fallacy' explored through different research by Buckingam and Goodall. For example, according to research by their ADP institute on the needs of the Millenial generation, the demand for more attention is confused with the demand for 'more feedback'. In reality, the underlying need would rather be for an audience to be attentive to them, as happens in social networks when people receive stars, hearts, likes.  Thus, when we adopt processes of 'radical transparency' or 'hard feedback' that consist of putting people at the centre of a continuous stream of feedback, negative or positive, we are questionably responding to a current need. In fact, while 'procedural' negative feedback, that of correcting operational errors, helps us to correct ourselves and is always useful, total feedback that describes performance through strengths and weaknesses even on behavioural areas such as assertiveness, risk-taking, overview, empathy, etc. presents the risk of being even harmful and we shall see how.

Buckingam and Goodall in their research identified three mental models, three biases, that guide our use of feedback without being questioned:

  1. The 'source of truth' model according to which the other who observes us, has the more or less objective truth about our performance. In reality, the other has only a partial, fallacious and subjective perception far from absolute truth. If we take, for example, a typical behavioural competence, 'Overview', even if it is declined and described by related behaviours, it is evident that arriving at a precise and measurable perception is practically impossible. This fallacy becomes evident in 360° feedback systems, which, by putting together numerous perceptions, give us the illusion of arriving at a good average approximation. The basic fallacy, however, remains that of thinking that by averaging together perceptions distorted by a set of biases, we can arrive at something precise.
  2. The 'bridging gaps through learning' model. According to this model, there are target competencies for each role and those not possessed must be learned. It has, however, been discovered more recently that neuronal connections are mainly generated where other connections are already present, whereas it becomes more difficult to create new ones. When the brain receives positive feedback, the signal received is that someone appreciates what we are doing and this creates the possibility of generating new connections and learning. Negative feedback, on the other hand, produces the activation of the 'fight or flight' survival mode and the stress generated not only does not produce learning but reduces it. This result is counterintuitive to so many slogans about the need to 'leave one's comfort zone': on the contrary, learning, creativity, productivity are generated within it or with careful accompaniment to cross the 'survival mode' zone, not just by leaving the person with negative feedback.
  3. The third mental model is the 'excellence theory' according to which there is an excellent way to achieve goals. And this assumption is also easily disassembled. There is an excellent way when tasks are repetitive and mechanical, but in complex contexts it becomes difficult to select a single way to excellence. It is even more futile, according to the researchers, to think of arriving at excellence through the correction of failures, which leads, perhaps, to the development of adequate performance, since excellence for different people takes different forms. Removing subjectivity from performance therefore does not lead to an alleged 'objective excellence'.

What to do with the results of these studies? Stop giving corrective feedback?

The answer, supported by research on the effects of 'informational' feedback that is given to correct performance, is definitely 'no': since it is feedback that is given to correct concrete actions, immediately comprehensible to the receiver, we can continue to give it - with all the necessary precautions. A circumstantial feedback, focused on the specific action, as close as possible to the moment when the error was perceived. This type of feedback is perceived as non-threatening, shifting the focus from the negative emotions due to the error made, to the task and the need to perform it correctly. It is therefore useful to provide information that allows the error to be corrected.

Feedback, on the other hand, which aims to correct more complex behaviour, such as relational skills, must be handled more carefully.

In particular, thinking about the three mental models highlighted by research, which produce the 'feedback fallacy' feedback givers can:

- Adopt an attitude of 'humility' and openness to a different story emerging: it is a perception, not the truth, we may not have grasped the full complexity of the action;

- Emphasise strengths. This helps to consolidate learnings within people's comfort zone and reinforce what they do well, particularly if done at a time when we see people's talents being expressed. "Yes that's exactly it!!!" said at the moment when excellence happens works much better than an objective and impersonal description of what should be;

- Starting from the self and not from the other or the other. What we are seeing makes us think about, how we receive it, what emotions and interpretations we give with respect to what is happening and also what we would have done differently; on this the matrix of the generative speaking, which you will find within this blog, can provide useful practical insights for this conversation;

- Helping the person connect the past, the present, the future. Theory U, which is based precisely on this ability, from the present, to be in connection and in continuity with the past and future, may prove to be a really useful frame to avoid "downloading" and instead direct feedback to the future we wish to build together.

- Finally, one possibility, more in the order of diversity management and beyond, of organisational citizenship, is to compose teams with people who bring difference: people who are different in terms of skills, cognitive styles, origin, gender, age, etc., so that we can reinforce the strengths of each and every one and leverage the complementarity of skills rather than making immense efforts to create them where it is most difficult.

 


Women in a World of Men: The Transformation of Gender Dynamics through the Recovering of Identities

A few weeks ago, someone wrote to us on Linkedin saying that he had very much appreciated an article of ours, published in 2008 in Organisational & Social Dynamics.

We went to pick it up and decided to republish it on the blog. Sure it has taken a few years and there have been many evolutions. But it was definitely a pioneering article (and work). Some parts of it today, I think, among all, the nuance we had kept around 'nature or culture' today we would certainly write more decisively and consistently from a theoretical point of view.

But there is something that remains very present for us in the work on diversity in organisations, read through the psychodynamic keys of Group Relations, and it is around the theme of the recognition of identities, of the unconscious attempt to flatten them, to smooth them out, the alter-phagia we talk about in the article and the shame that risks, when not recognised, named, managed, to completely block the transformation.

 

Read te article on Organisational & Social Dynamics


Othering

This morning while reading the newspaper I was struck by a piece of news. A family in Palermo had agreed to take in refugees from the Ukraine, especially students of economics and medicine. When the refugees arrived, the family realised that the refugees from Ukraine were two Nigerian students studying in Kiev, who were fleeing the war, and refused to take them in. How did the family go from a charitable, generous, compassionate intention of welcoming to rejecting? The article suggested that two factors were at the root of this behaviour: skin colour and origin.

 

In connection with this episode, in this week's post we would like to explore a very interesting concept, which generates a whole family of stereotypes, what a nice English word calls "othering".

 

Our relationship with the outside world consists of a series of continuous evaluative acts, which allow us to form categories that, by reducing the complexity of the signals we receive, make us construct approximate and reductive representations of reality, which however have the major advantage of allowing us to make quick decisions. The categories have a hierarchical order so that the macro category can then contain a series of sub-categories that are linked to it.

This way of knowing has been necessary for our evolution, it has allowed us to make quick decisions even if approximate, activating the basic mechanisms of fight/flight.These categories work both for the perception of the environment more generally and for the perception of our relations with others, activating boundaries between who belongs to our group and who does not.

The term "othering" helps us to explore this process when it occurs at a systemic level on the basis of a characteristic (sexual orientation, gender, skin colour, disability, age...) that is collectively culturally attributed to "others" and then becomes a source of discrimination, injustice, conflict, war, great human suffering. From a political point of view, it is important to note that the process of othering is triggered by those who control the resources, the dominant group, which through it excludes the "othered" from distributive power, in a vicious circle of exclusion and loss of resources/power generating even more exclusion and so on.

 

In the 1960s Mrs Jane Elliot, a teacher in Iowa developed an interesting experiment in this regard. In a class homogeneous in colour and social status she induced discrimination based on eye colour, artificially creating a dominant group and a dominated group within the class (you can find numerous videos of these experiments on Youtube). Very quickly (one day) the dominant children started an escalation of exclusion and violence towards the dominated group.

Mrs. Elliot repeated the same experiment over the years with adults and with other classes, always with the same result. The initial objective was to test a dynamic of exclusion among an in-group with very marked homogeneity. What is interesting about the process of othering is that prejudice, created ad hoc by the group's leadership, took hold where it was completely absent, generating a spiral of violence.

 

The political communication of extreme right-wingers seems, among others, to have precisely this objective. Leveraging fears, then trying to organise them, manipulate them and take advantage of them. This communication aims to create forms of 'othering' where none existed, or to increase othering where it was already latent.

 

In 2008 the research group composed of Amy Cuddy, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick published a very interesting study entitled "Competence as Universal Dimensions of Social Perception: The Stereotype Content Model and the BIAS Map", which contained a model of interaction between individuals and groups, based on two essential dimensions in human relationships: the perception of warmth - how close, similar, sympathetic the other person is to me, etc., and the perception of competence.

Crossing the two dimensions in a matrix we obtain four categories of relationships. The one we are interested in exploring now (for the others, see the research) is that of groups perceived as "low warmth, low competence".

 

In another research on mirror neurons, which are those that allow us to empathise, it was shown that in the brains of the subjects investigated, the suffering of people classified in the "Disgust" group did not produce any movement of these neurons, demonstrating a total absence of empathy and compassion towards these human beings. When in the process of othering the other is classified as belonging to the first quadrant at the bottom of the matrix his or her suffering is therefore completely indifferent to us.

 

Is this perhaps what happened to the family in Palermo who refused to take in refugees? The hypothesis may be that, given their origin, the two young people went from "Sympathy and Pity" to the quadrant below, generating emotional detachment from their suffering, albeit the same suffering that had produced the offer of asylum when brought in by the white population. Is it this process that causes war refugees to be categorised, and that for some of these categories, particularly those who die daily trying to cross the Mediterranean, there is no compassion, but rather a debate about closing borders?

 

In the beautiful article "The problem of othering Towards inclusiveness and belonging", John Powell and Stephen Menendian ask what systemic responses to othering should be given (if you are interested in this topic, do not hesitate to visit the UC Berkeley website otheringandbelonging.org, which is full of materials).

 

The two authors analyse the systemic responses given so far, all of which have created great human suffering as well as a host of other problems, in particular

- segregation - denial of the humanity of the other, which artificially separates groups that risk conflict, preventing their contact and access to the same resources, as happens for example in the Parisian banlieues, with the result in this case of leading to the radicalisation of some of them;

- secession - allocating a territory to the 'others', arbitrary labelling on the basis of a single dimension, which historically has rarely proved to work, and which, taking homogenisation on the basis of one criterion for granted, does not take into account that within the separated territories there will be othering at work;

- assimilation - with its set of obligations for the dominated party to adapt to the dominant party by renouncing its culture, language, religion... in which those who assimilate renounce key elements of their identity in order to continue to be considered "other".

 

The conclusion is that the only possible dynamic that opposes othering is belonging. Not belonging granted a posteriori, after the resources have been distributed, but beforehand. The belonging in which the other is not asked to "fit in", to adapt, but that which has at its base an idea of shared equity, in which the rules of the game are discussed together, not established unilaterally by the party with power.

Belonging that goes beyond the concept of inclusion, in which there is no party that decides who is in and who is out, but in which, together, using dialogue, we establish how to live together. The leadership that serves this purpose, the leadership of belonging has as its objective the regeneration of relationships and, with them, of systems, just as happens in Nature.

 

Photocredit ©Reuters


"Manterrupting' - do we really still need to talk about it?

Manterrupting is a phenomenon that has been described and publicised for many years now. It has been explored, ridiculed, caricatured, dissected and analysed for many years. Just by searching for the hashtag on social networks, hundreds of examples, researches, articles illustrating it come up... so why talk about it again?

Marianne is a young executive in a multinational company, who came to the role after being placed in a development programme for high potentials. During one of the individual coaching sessions included in the programme, Marianne arrives very angry. She tells me that she often attends meetings with colleagues and management levels higher than her own. Before these meetings, she prepares thoroughly for the topics on the agenda, but she is often unable to contribute. In coaching, she tells me about the last meeting. She tells me that it was on a subject she knows very well, that she had prepared a whole series of data to contribute to the decisions, that she tried several times to share them but that in the end she had to give up: she was interrupted almost immediately when she started to speak.

From the 1980s onwards, a number of university studies began to highlight this phenomenon, showing that female researchers were interrupted much more often than their male colleagues, for whom, moreover, the measured speaking time was much greater than for them.

Interrupting someone in a conversation from time to time is normal: to add information, to bring the other person back on topic, to show agreement, to limit verbiage... But during the 1990s, the phenomenon continued to be investigated and a hypothesis began to emerge: not all interruptions are the same, some are quite intrusive and, behind them, there is a conscious or unconscious desire to question the legitimacy of the word of the person who is communicating.

The systemic theories on relationships (Gregory Bateson, P. Watzlawick), in particular the description of the different levels of human communication, provide us with interesting insights to analyse what happens in "manterrupting": there is a level of content, in communication, which we can call level 1, where the interruption actually serves to add information, express an opinion, circulate the word among the participants in the meeting. In this level we can analyse the "what" is exchanged in the communication and realise, for example, that the added content actually contributes to the objective of the communication.

There is also a level 2, which defines the relationship between the participants in the conversation, including the distribution of power between them. It is a level in which we can analyse the process of communication, the 'how'. Research at Princeton University has shown that manterrupting is, for the men who practice it, rather a way of re-establishing power relations that they feel are threatened by women.  It is as if, by interrupting, the communication passed implicitly to the other party is 'look what you say is not important, because you are not important'. While interrupting having in mind the objectives of the communication (the why) can be useful, manterrupting is dysfunctional because its unconscious objective is not to enrich the conversation but simply to exercise its own power, which it feels threatened.

Marianne's company has, as in many companies, agendas around DE&I and unconscious gender bias. In the top management's statements about the company's culture and values, there is a willingness to move towards a state of equity, where gender should not affect skills or professional relationships, but the focus is on performance. It is the 'stated' theory that should define what people should do to produce results.

But if we analyse Marianne's case within the relational schema described above, we realise that, unconsciously, the "theory in use" (what really happens, beyond the declarations) is quite different. Marianne's colleagues unconsciously (or consciously?) operate in the sense of re-establishing a power relationship over her by interrupting her during meetings.

In the intentions, there are attempts to bring about a change, stimulating women to "dare", to take their own space: within the talent programme itself, in which Marianne is included, there are modules on women's leadership.  But behind the manterrupting there is a visceral drive, a patriarchal occupation of territory that does not tolerate being questioned. Marianne's silence corresponds to an implicit acceptance of the rules of the game. The cultural mental model of male power must not be questioned.

Why, after so many years and so many declarations, does gender equality still seem so far away?

There is a first, very important step that has been taken. That of naming the phenomenon and describing it in order to give keys to interpreting an often inexplicable reality for women and men, and not only in the workplace. After awareness, there is action to follow.  And for this there are different ways. One possible way is to realise, collectively, what are the rewarding leadership models of how leadership manifests itself, for women and men, and then to imagine a new leadership, different, more inclusive, less guided by laws that were fine (perhaps!) for men and women in other eras but are no longer suited to the challenges of 21st century organisations.

With Marianne, in the coaching process, it was very important to start from this observation, which helped her to understand that what is happening is not her fault: it has nothing to do with her level of preparation, her skills, her personality.  It is important, in order not to aggravate what is happening by attributing blame that does not exist, that the different phenomena are read within the contexts in which they occur.  The keys that come from the theories of group relations are particularly useful, in order not to limit oneself to a personalistic reading. What unconscious mental models condition people's actions within this system?   Marianne can answer this question, but a collective questioning can be much more effective in order to really produce a profound change. In coaching we then opened up on the question "what is concretely in my power to change the situation?". A realistic exploration is important in order to accompany the person to operate at a level of responsibility that is possible and not on an omnipotent idea with respect to transformation, which risks being comforting in the short term and very frustrating in the medium to long term, once we become aware that it is not only the action of an individual that can operate on a cultural model but that of a collective.

From her point of view Marianne can work on her assertiveness, on her ability to immediately point out to the men who interrupt her the dynamic in which they are caught by saying something like "You have just interrupted me, but I will continue what I was saying" or "I was talking, now I will finish what I was saying". These are some of the issues we are addressing, together with the group of women who are involved in the leadership workshops, in the same company. This kind of intervention allows to interrupt the vicious circuit. One does not interrupt the other by speaking louder and adding content (level 1) but by redefining the relationship (level 2). Another type of assertiveness intervention is to avoid any sentence that undermines Marianne's legitimacy to intervene in that meeting. This means dropping all openings such as "Excuse me, but I would like to add...", "Perhaps it would also be important to take into account..." etc. and replacing them with, for example, "I will now give you some data that it is important to take into account...". "The argument in favour of this decision is...' etc.

Another track of change is to work on creating alliances, both with other women sensitised to the issue and also with men. This is the theme of "allyship" and its importance in transformation processes affecting DE&I. Together with Marianne we produced a " map of allies and sponsors " and how to work on these alliances. Without a viable alliance with the "dominant" party, it is much more difficult for change agents to achieve the desired results, while waiting for interventions on the organisational culture to bear fruit. Allying is different from simply 'networking'. Allies can, for example in a manterrupting situation, in turn interrupt the switch to give the interrupted woman back the floor, thus breaking the 'two-way' relational dynamic. Going from two to three, in the relationship, means not only avoiding the risk of escalation "I'll interrupt you more", but also taking a step towards the collective. The game is no longer between the dominant group and the dominated group, the third party also has the role of questioning the status quo and promoting movement.


The link between risk aversion and the inner critic: self-sabotage in transformative decisions

Emma is an executive in a multinational company. She is 40 years old and her career path is built on a continuous series of successes, brilliant results, a very fast progression, until she was promoted to her last position, as marketing director of one of the company's business units, a few months ago, crowning a goal she had had since she was young. Very quickly, the new role begins to weigh on her, not only because of the work itself, but also because of the team she is called upon to lead, her colleagues, and the extent of her decision-making, which turns out to be less than she expected. We start coaching after a few weeks in which she has felt the victim of pressure, which she considers unjustified and unhelpful in relation to the results she is asked to achieve. She is full of doubts about the company itself, which seems to betray the declared value system, but also about continuing her career in the private sector. She tells herself that perhaps she should try something more aligned with her values with a greater social impact. After a few sessions, having clarified that she doesn't want to stay in her current role, we start to explore other possibilities of roles even far away from the one she is doing, because she says she feels like a radical change. And Emma begins to have a particular behaviour in this respect. Every time an idea comes up and she seems to like it, she starts to find arguments against it: "No, I would have to train for years to do this", "I don't have the skills", "All the people I studied with are doing prestigious jobs ", "I won't succeed and I will have to go back to a company in a less important position", "I would like to but I am not able to do it"...

The risk aversion bias was identified by Tversky and Kahneman as early as 1973. It is the thought process that links risk to the possibility of losing, and which produces distorted decisions because the possibility of winning is underestimated in the face of possible losses. From the point of view of neurological functioning, the amygdala signals a threat. The striatum, which is responsible for assessing possible losses and gains, skews the perception towards losses; the insula, together with the amygdala, which is responsible for disgust, steers us away from behaviour that is considered risky. Risk aversion is related to our investment decisions, including, for example, those related to insurance. But today we will talk about this bias in connection with a psychological phenomenon that originates from it, the so-called "Inner Critic". The Inner Critic is that persistent and insistent voice that reminds us how incapable, incompetent, unsuitable and not fit we are; that makes us ashamed even to have thought of doing a certain thing, of speaking in public, of speaking at a meeting, of wanting that role, of doing something we have never done. Always that voice that makes us adopt a "fixed mindset" rather than a "growth mindset", pushing us to see, in an unconscious way, every learning as a risk, highlighting the losses that will be caused by the novelties, activating that ancestral circuit of defensive thinking, mentioned above, that was so useful to us at the dawn of our species, which now only risks to nail us to painful and unwanted situations for fear of the risk of going down new paths.

Basically, we can imagine the internal critic as a kind of little bad guy sitting permanently on our shoulder. On the other shoulder sits a much more benevolent character, the one that Doena Giardella in an article in the MIT Sloan journal calls the “inner champion” or in other literature the 'inner mentor or coach' (Tara Mohr), who suggests new ideas, creativity and tells us that everything will be OK. But the spontaneous tendency is rather not to listen to this voice and to let the inner conversation we have with ourselves and ourselves rather be directed by the person who loves us least and to let him guide our actions.

The voices that animate it can be different and come from our past: those who brought us up, parents, reference adults, school educators, sisters and brothers, but also environments that were not restraining, perceived as threatening, in which we could not develop relationships in safety, as happens, according to attachment theory, when we experienced so-called "avoidance" relationships during childhood.

The voice of the internal critic does not speak kindly to us, as one normally speaks to someone who loves us, but labels us "you are not the one  who does this kind of thing", it can be at the origin of the famous "impostor syndrome", it reminds us of all our weaknesses, compares us to others always more performing than us, makes us imagine disastrous results in which we feel a great sense of guilt and shame for what we have done. It is the voice of (fake) wisdom that tells us "don't leave the old road for the new one" " whoever praises oneself gets cheated" and that, at the moment of acting to transform and regenerate our lives, our role, our company, our family, paralyses us and pushes us to prefer the status quo rather than risk losing something, as in all changes.

It is this voice that the manager Emma in our case heard, loud and clear, as she began to think about going off the beaten path to transform her life towards something more consistent with the vocation she feels at the moment.  When we explored, during the coaching, the voice of the internal critic, some episodes of her childhood that Emma recalled, allowed us to shape the voice: in particular Emma heard the voices of her family, the criticism and advice, recommending her to go towards a course of studies suitable for her environment and social position and then the professional and career choices, the approach to work characterised by extreme devotion and perfectionism. These are voices that she has made her own, and that have often put her at risk of burnout, never making her feel competent enough, good enough, brilliant enough, performing well enough, both in relation to herself and to the other people in the company.

The inner critic risks profoundly undermining self-confidence and trust in others when he or she produces projections onto others, generating a dynamic of attributing bad intentions to ourselves, "it's their fault, they make me feel bad", "my colleagues don't like me", etc.

What can we do, concretely, about the internal critic?

  1. Tara Mohr, in the chapter of "Playing Big" dedicated to the subject, suggests above all not to reject it outright. After all, if we go back to the evolutionary usefulness of the "risk aversion" bias that lies at its origin, we can link it to the fact that one of the objectives of this critical voice is precisely to protect us from the hostility of the environment. The suggestion, therefore, as in the Jungian theory of the shadow is to welcome it, to be aware of it. A good way is to bring out the confabulation and write down what the inner critic is telling us in order to transform it. Tara Mohr suggests dividing a sheet of paper into two columns with, for example, the internal critic on the left, and the "rational thinker" on the right. In the latter column we can capture the wisdom of the message we are sending, which allows us to, for example, calculate the risks and rewards of the choice in a rational way;
  2. When the internal critic is active we speak to and about ourselves in a mean, harsh way, without empathy. Doena Giardella from MIT suggests that we include this dimension in our internal conversation. Be kind. At a time when there is a lot of talk about "kind leadership", it becomes essential to start with the self, using compassion and understanding in our internal conversation, in order not to self-harm or self-sabotage in transformation processes. The idea is to use the "inner champion" or "inner mentor" (the good guy who talks to us from our shoulder) to help us reframe criticism.
  3. In the moment when we are acting, for example in relationship with others, and we feel that in our internal conversation we are criticising ourselves, decentralise from ourselves, return to relational connection with others and ask ourselves what they need. The internal critic removes us not only from empathy towards ourselves but also from empathy in the relationship, making us focus only on our unconscious need to preserve the status quo.
  4. In the ex post analysis (of a meeting, of a change, but also of a failure) look for the silver lining, the lesson learned, the sprout of something new that has been born. Allow regeneration, we would say in Nexus.
  5. In a management position we might unconsciously reproduce the familiar script, for example by creating a work environment that can be defined as "avoidance" according to Attachment theory. In this kind of environment the internal critic could correspond to a demand, more or less implicit, for perfection not only towards us but also towards the other members of the team. In the case, for example, of a change we want to promote or of a mistake made, it will be useful to use humility to investigate the causes and the responsibilities, from what is called an "inquiring" position, of benevolent and truly open investigation, instead of resorting to advocacy, to accusation, to soliciting the feeling of guilt and shame in the team members.

 


'Illusion of transparency bias': when we don't take the risk of actually meeting the other

The illusion of transparency was first defined in 1998, in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, by the research team consisting of Thomas Gilovich, Victoria H. Medvec, Kenneth Savistsy. It consists of 'the tendency of people to overestimate the extent to which others can discern their internal states'. The name describes well the phenomenon that occurs when we think that others can, almost magically, look into us, and see our emotions, our thoughts, our desires. Transparency here, as you can see, has a very different meaning to the one we are used to see, in relation for example to governance.

Reading the research took me back, way back, and I found myself, fifteen years old, in the corridors of the school, hopelessly in love with the star of the student movement, while I wandered around trying to see him, telling myself that surely he must have seen the blushing, the languid looks, the paralysis that took hold of me every time I crossed his path and, linked to this, all the turmoil of emotions that the sight of him provoked in me. At the time there was a novel that had struck my imagination enormously, "The Princess of Clèves", and the school corridor had become for me like the king’s court in which, almost as if on a stage, everyone was attentive to reading the feelings of others on their faces, in a communication made up of nuances, of glances given and not given, of heads turned, of palpitations all clearly or almost clearly seen, decoded, understood.

But this functioning and this attention on the others do not really exist, because everyone is much more concentrated and taken by what is happening inside themselves, an effect called spotlight, related to the illusion of transparency, which manifests itself in the idea of having a social spotlight on us. This is all the more true when the emotion that runs through us is strong. Of course, there are adjustments we make to moderate these illusions and disengage ourselves from our internal experience, but they are not enough. What we are left with is the feeling that what is going on inside us is much more visible than it really is.

Some examples of how this bias manifests itself are: when we are angry or upset with someone and we stop talking or we answer in monosyllables and we are surprised that the person in question doesn't realise, doesn't ask us what we have, etc. This is a situation I have often heard about in coaching, for example in relationships between managers and employees, but it is also very common in relationships between couples. The strong emotions that run through us, be they anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and which are present and in the foreground for us, are invisible or almost invisible for the relationships around us, be they professional or personal. Illusions of transparency and the spotlight effect can be attributed to anchoring and adaptation bias, according to the three researchers.  "When individuals try to determine how obvious their internal states are to others, they begin the process of judgment from their own subjective experience. The adjustments they make from this anchoring-adjustments that result from the recognition that others are not as aware of their internal states as they are - tend to be insufficient. The net result is a residual effect of one's own phenomenology and the feeling that one's own internal states are more apparent to others than they actually are."

There are situations in which thinking about this effect can benefit us. Think, for example, during a moment of public speaking, when you may be feeling the sweat running down, you have the impression that your voice and hands are shaking and that everyone is noticing your agitation. Or during a job interview, when we are trying to turn a less than glorious moment in our CV into a positive one. Or, again, when we are telling a lie, and think of the popular belief that lies are obvious. In reality, agitation, anxiety, fear are much more perceptible to us. The person or persons in front of us will be caught in their own spotlight and will pay much less attention to us than we think.

The illusion of transparency and the spotlight effect can give us an idea of how distorted, illusory, superficial, distant from reality relationships with others can be in general, and of the difficulty of meeting the other person for what he or she is, beyond our projections and ego.

What can we do then to moderate these effects?

The tools of generative dialogue offer us a possible way for this encounter to take place. Generative listening allows us to temporarily silence our ego in order to open ourselves up to the experience of encounter, starting from a deep connection, which is not made (only) through rationality and words, but through the observation of the other, of the metaphors they use, of the emotional signals they send, of their life path. A connection in a space freed from our presence, from the need for reassurance, control, certainty... Generative speaking then helps us to build on the deep listening, allowing us to give names to what is present but also to what is implicit, new, surprising, in order to create a common ground of encounter. It is in dialogue that the illusion of transparency and the spotlight effect can be overcome.

But to enter this process requires an inner readiness to be Disturbed, Displaced & Disrupted, i.e. to accept that my own assumptions, or certainties, may be seriously challenged by this ‘real encounter’ with the other person, particularly when I discover that my explanations of why certain dynamics were happening in our relationship are no longer appropriate now that I realise that they didn’t have the information about me which, because of this “illusion of transparency bias”, I was so convinced that they had.


Unconscious Bias and the performance management and development process

This week for our blogpost on bias we are not going to talk about a single bias but, as we have already done on climate change, we will take a cluster of biases, in particular some of those that impact performance management.

Innovations in this area have been taking place regularly in recent years, in an attempt to create systems that are as fair as possible and that accommodate the learning and development paths of those involved: 360° rating systems, self-assessment crossed with the assessment of the manager, refined skills systems, consistency checks to focus on the collective dimension of assessment and moderate its subjectivity, increasingly precise KPIs, right up to the recent OKR goal-setting systems introduced by Google as an evolution of the MBO and continuous feedback... to name but a few. In reality, even well-designed performance management systems capable of grasping the complexity of organisational action remain anchored to a basic and spontaneous human activity: that of observation and the process of attributing meaning and interpretation based on these observations.

It is in this perspective that the increasing attention to the distortions and traps inherent in these processes becomes an interesting reflection for both the evaluated subjects and the evaluator. Awareness and transformation of the unconscious biases of individuals, but also coming from the organisational culture, becomes crucial for these systems to really serve to generate the individual and collective learning necessary to meet the challenges of the organisational context.

Let us try, in the following, to categorise some of these biases even if, as we shall see, forming precise categories becomes difficult and somewhat artificial since biases often regroup in the single evaluative act.

Biases related to identity factors of the evaluating manager or manager

- Identity bias (or Similar to me bias). It derives from the ancestral tendency to form relational subsets, "in-out groups", according to characteristics actually possessed or projected onto others, which make them feel similar or distant from us. Belonging to one group or another is a strong identity factor. The subject perceived as similar to us is therefore better evaluated and managed than the subject perceived as 'different'. Numerous studies show that gender, ethnicity, educational background, religion and age are among the "in-out group" factors that have a strong impact on evaluation. This bias manifests itself, in a favourable evaluation for those who feel similar, also in the communication of the performance evaluation, through, for example, a use of the pronoun "you" to distinguish those who are perceived as out-group and "we" for those who are "in-group", with impacts on the sense of organisational belonging, the feeling of being recognised, and motivation. It is is also important to mitigate this bias, that diversity is represented in all hierarchical levels.

- Attribution bias (or opportunity bias). This is the tendency to attribute successes to us and our abilities and failures to bad luck or causes external to us. This tendency is reversed in the case of assessed subjects for whom the opposite happens: a good performance when this bias is in action is attributed to luck or favourable conditions in the context and, for a bad performance, only the person's inabilities are highlighted. This bias, combined with the identity bias, can generate a systematic good or bad perception of the assessment, attributing to some only merits and to others only the intervention of fate and vice versa.

Biases linked to the use of rating scales

- Leniency Bias. The manager uses the rating scale in a systematically generous way.The indulgence may be higher for some employees (see bias above) but may also be more generalised. Behind this bias there are meta-models of description of reality in the evaluator, such as "I need to be loved or cherished and if I evaluate realistically I will not be loved or cherished anymore" or "I evaluate generously to signal encouragement so the person will do better",The indulgence may be higher for some employees (see bias above) but may also be more generalised. Behind this bias there are meta-models of description of reality in the evaluator, such as "I need to be loved and if I evaluate realistically I won't be loved anymore" or "I evaluate generously to signal an encouragement so the person will do better" or "if I evaluate negatively a performance then I will have to face a conflict and it scares me" and a distorted idea of "kindness", which does not take into account that the objective of management and evaluation is not to punish but to generate learning in the evaluator and in the evaluated.

- Severity bias.The manager systematically evaluates more severely. The mental models behind this systematic error may be, for example, "I've paid my dues, now the person being appraised has to pay their dues", or "if I use high values then the person will not work hard", etc. Numerous researches have been carried out to link personality traits (e.g. detected with the BigFive test) and systematic errors in the scales, e.g. linking traits of emotional stability and extroversion to lenient use and vice versa. Interesting results emerged from recent research on the link between generous or severe use of the scales and, once again, identity characteristics of the person assessed, which highlighted the risk of greater assessment severity towards dominated groups (women, people of colour, LGBT+, cognitive diversity etc.). Another interesting aspect on this topic is the use of scales in self-assessment linked to the famous "impostor syndrome" that consists (also) in a systematic error of severity in self-assessment that produces a feeling of inadequacy and illegitimacy in the person.

- Central tendency. Especially on odd-numbered scales, tendency to use only the central values and not the whole scale, in order to avoid taking full responsibility using the extreme values.

Biases related to the partial focus on the performance of the assessed.

- Positive and negative halo effect. The halo effect, one of the first biases to be studied, occurs when a positive or negative part of the performance is focused and emphasised, so that the whole assessment is affected. For example, John has very high skills in customer negotiation, contract closure, team management, but rarely speaks up in meetings. His manager might, based on this last characteristic, evaluate him negatively on the whole performance. I have taken the example of "speaking up in meetings" also because, according to some research, there is a positive halo effect affecting those who are good at speaking up in public. The halo effect may be even wider and concern not so much a part of the performance but characteristics of the person, in particular attractiveness, enthusiasm, positivity that are associated with effective performance, going so far as to conceal non-positive results.

- Recent memory bias (or availability bias). It consists in the belief that an event that happened recently is more likely to happen again. Hence, with respect to performance management, the tendency to recall mainly the last three or four months of performance and leave the rest of the year in the shadows. A curious effect of this bias is the so-called "hot hand", a metaphor taken from sport where a tendency to pass the ball more frequently to people who have scored a point has been studied, in accordance with the belief that one success can easily be followed by another (and reconfirming this belief because greater possession of the ball creates more opportunities to score points). In the business environment this effect produces the assignment of interesting and challenging projects one after the other to people who have been successful in one project, recreating the conditions for another success. A good way of counteracting this bias is through continuous feedback systems or the OKR methodology as a whole.

- First impression effect. Contrary to recent memory bias, this effect anchors us to the first general impression we had of the person and makes us revert to the judgement we formed in the first few seconds of the relationship, regardless of the results the person actually achieved. So a good first impression can hide negative performance and a bad first impression produces the opposite results. In a future post on bias we will talk about the famous Harvard research on "warmth & competence".

Comparison Biases

- Contrast effect. One of our ways of learning, as human beings, comes from comparing information to analyse its differences and similarities. This routine of thinking, when applied to performance management, distracts us from the object of our observation - the relationship and results of an individual, in relation to his or her objectives - and moves us to comparisons with other members of the organisation, or between members of the same team. Performance is thus assessed not for the added value on objectives given by the individual, but as better or worse than other team members.

- Job vs Individual bias. In most organisations, there are mental models that lead to a focus on certain roles, which are perceived as more contributory to the production of results, than others. I am thinking for instance of research roles in hi-tech companies or sales and marketing roles in consumer companies (where we happened to hear these two functions referred to as "la voie royale"). This bias consists in favouring, in performance management, those roles that intervene in the functions perceived as having the highest added value in the company, negatively impacting the sense of fairness, by evaluating in a worse way roles considered as minor.

At the end of this roundup, the evaluator may feel a little uneasy 😊. We offer some ideas to try to contain this bias.

  1. We can't say it enough, but the more awareness we have of how we think and the processes that lead us to frameworks for action, the more chance we have of finding the biases and errors. This means helping our rational side to participate in the process as much as possible. Performance management tools are also made for this, to take the evaluative activity out of spontaneity. Awareness needs to take the time, and this is another key factor. Evaluations done in a hurry, at the last minute, in a ritualistic way just to fill "the report card" (in how many organisations have we heard this term again!!) are the breeding ground for bad evaluations. A good appraisal creates the conditions for better performance in the next period, so it is not a cost in terms of time but an investment in the future and in creating a good team climate.
  2. Having a performance management and development system that is as articulated as possible, with properly written objectives, truly relevant measurement indicators, competencies described clearly and factually, multi-channel feedback is an important part. But, as mentioned above, no system can be completely bias free, e.g. those who designed it.
  3. An interesting device is the consistency check. At the end of the evaluations, the and the peer managers get together to tell how they came to place people on the scale. The peer managers and other participants in the meeting challenge the assessment through counterexamples, questions about specific behaviours observed etc. It is an good solution and the consistency checks we have witnessed have been great learning moments. As long as people play along and are willing to see not only each other's biases but also their own and work on the organisational level, asking themselves for example "what are we not seeing, because of habits, routines, 'this is how we do it'?"
  4. When you have a lot of team members it is good not to do evaluations all at once. If you reread the list of mistakes above, it is clear that if you add to these an unspecified number of evaluations made all in one afternoon, it becomes very difficult to know who did what.
  5. Continuous feed back becomes a very good tool, especially when it is possible that the evaluator and the evaluated can agree on its content and keep a common record of it. The advantage, apart from the evaluation, is above all on the learning cycle of the person, which is thereby enhanced.
  6. A culture of acceptance and growth through error helps the assessor and the assessed to open a dialogue, in which the relationship is protected from the risk of the "one story". The eye (and brain) of the evaluator are not infallible. There are (at least) two versions of the story and, through a clear and circumstantial exposition of the facts, both can perhaps enrich the reconstruction that has been made.

 

 

Phote credit Rob Gonsalves


Holidays, gifts & gender stereotypes

"The only gift is a portion of thyself." Ralph Waldo Emerson

For this week's bias we chose to remain in the light-heartedness and playfulness of the end-of-year celebrations that have just ended and on a topic that we are passionate about: gender bias and in particular behaviors that risk reinforcing it from childhood.

Just before Christmas I was working on a webinar with a group of women managers, of different ages and backgrounds, on gender stereotypes. Dialoguing on the topic together for some time already, we had the opportunity to explore its origins, impacts on professional life and career, risks, tools to neutralize them etc., so it was not a group new to reflection on these topics. I had just finished a very interesting book, actually read for preparing another project, for a group of teachers "Le manuel qui dezyngue les stereotypes" by Nathalie Anton, published at the end of the year in France by Eyrolles.Towards the middle of the book, the author proposes an amusing tool, which she herself defines as caricature, and I had the intuition that it could serve to play with the theme together with my group. So, in the midst of the pre-Christmas atmosphere, I used it as a warming up exercise, called it using the French expression "Cadeau impoisonné?" (which could be translated as Poisoned Gift?).

I bring it back to you in its entirety:

Have you already given or are about to give one of these toys as a gift To a little girl To a little boy
Spaceship
Doll
Construction vehicle like excavator or tractor
Cooking pans
Fire truck or police car
Racetrack for cars
Princess disguise
Sword/Gun
Make-up
Journal
Helicopter/Ship

 

I invite you to fill out the chart, as my participants did at the beginning of the webinar, and then answer the questions in the last part of the post.

We've talked about gender stereotypes often in the cycle of posts on bias on the Nexus blog. They can be defined as "a set of beliefs that people hold, about what it means to be a woman or a man." Their content evolves over time and varies across cultures. Gender stereotypes engender expectations about social and professional roles that are linked to a person's gender.   Over the years, a series of widely publicized "pop" research suggested that these roles, for biological reasons, were divided, simplifying, into roles of action for men and care for women. The evolution of studies has allowed to question a number of myths and to establish that the similarities between the brains of men and women are much more than the differences (see, among many, the beautiful and rigorous book by Gina Rippon "Gendered Brain"). Myths, with their simplifying appeal, are very difficult to deconstruct and abandon. As Gina Rippon points out, for example, if by now no one could seriously argue scientifically the inferiority of women, another gender prison becomes, the one of the supposed "complementarity" between men and women and its praise, even behind good intentions to ensure that female characteristics such as the ability to empathize, to listen, to relate with others can emerge. Good intentions which, however, generate stereotypes, albeit positive, that are equally imprisoning: complementarity becomes another way of defining men and women in a static, limited way, and of making complexity with all its facets fit into the duality of the "action/care" paradigm.

Children begin very early, from the age of 2/3, to categorize the world and make inferences about how it works. On gender this means that very early on they begin to associate actions, activities, professions, roles with one gender rather than another. Parents, teachers, books, television, video games can reinforce these inferences or challenge them, propose alternative ones.

The exercise on the chart sparked a lot of laughter among the webinar participants, but also exchanges and reflections. Needless to say, for most of the group, the results were fairly predictable. Ships, diggers, tracks, trucks etc. given to little boys, makeup, dolls, pans etc. given to little girls, with a few rare exceptions.

This exercise was a cheerful, non-guilty moment to reflect on one of the many micro behaviors that, when we are aware of them, are revealing of our mental models, in this case regarding gender. If we take a time to breathe and analyze, if we slow down, they can give us insights into how we function and possible alternatives. For example, after doing the exercise without thinking too much we can stop and ask ourselves: what are the patterns that have guided my choices? What does it mean for me to be a woman? man? What do I associate with the genders? What activities characterize a woman and a man? What can a woman do? A man? What does the gift I am giving for this baby girl or boy mean? What implicit messages am I conveying? What are the effects of these messages? Are they messages of encouragement, of openness? What impacts will they have on his or her choices? What do they nurture and what do they discourage for her or him?

Taking up the quote in the opening, if it is true that "Every gift is a part of us," by choosing it for the younger generation we are also transmitting our model, and with it an idea of the future, a possibility/impossibility of abandoning what has been true for centuries and no longer works and making room for something different. And on this transmission and its implications we can choose to be aware of the consequences we produce.


"There's a crisis, let's appoint a woman": dynamics and pitfalls of the Glass Cliff

Suzanne is an executive at a large French company in the energy sector. She is told that she will be leading the digital transformation project, a key cross-cutting project that will involve the whole company over the coming months, a role for which she will report directly to the CEO. The project was led until now by Jean-André. It had started in 2019 but, whether due to the COVID crisis or other factors, it was stagnating and was not delivering the desired results.  In proposing the role to her, she is told that one of the causes of the past failures was Jean-André's inability to talk about the project to the people involved, in a convincing way and not being able to show enough empathy in communicating the changes that would involve the staff and thus the downward spiral of all the climate indicators, given the general discontent that the transformation is causing. The project also started because of the loss of market share that the company was experiencing, a loss that was amplified during the first year of the project.  Suzanne accepted the role with enthusiasm, telling herself that her appointment, in a corporate culture that historically prefers men in visible, highly political roles such as the one she had been offered, must be the result of a new wind, also brought about by the creation of the Diversity, Equality & Inclusion function, a wind that is blowing through the entire society and perhaps finally producing real change.

Since the mid-1970s, particularly thanks to Marylin Loden who first used the expression at a conference, the concept of the Glass Ceiling has made its appearance in organizational and gender studies. In essence, it refers to the series of structural (low pay, low status of assigned roles, etc.) and cultural barriers, in particular gender stereotypes, which mean that women's careers often stop at middle management roles. More recent, however, is the emergence of the Glass Cliff phenomenon. This is a concept created in 2005 by two researchers, Michelle Ryan & Alexander Haslam. Impressed by a Times article inspired by research that seemed to show that women and minorities, particularly ethnic minorities, in leadership roles generate below-average performance, the researchers looked in more detail at the contexts in which women were appointed to senior positions.  One common feature emerged that completely challenges the findings of previous research, shifting the focus from individual capabilities to the field in which they can/cannot be expressed. The contexts in which those appointments were made, in fact, could be defined as 'deep crisis'. And so, just like on a dangerous Glass Cliff, women appointed to leadership positions in these contexts multiplied the risk of failure, of being singled out as incapable even publicly, and the stress resulting from particularly strenuous conditions, which feeds the vicious circle of the glass cliff. It could be argued that success or failure in highly complex positions is influenced by many variables besides gender and crisis conditions. Numerous other studies have examined choices in fictitious scenarios that made it possible to isolate some variables, confirming the glass cliff phenomenon: women and minorities were preferred to white men in preference during crisis situations.

We might at this point ask ourselves: why is it that, during a crisis, it is easier for the Glass Ceiling in organisations (but also, as has been shown, in politics and sport) to be overcome, thereby putting categories hitherto excluded from power at high risk of failure? One possible explanation is that in these particularly delicate and difficult contexts, the skills sought after by those in leadership roles are different. If in 'normal' times, an agentic leadership is preferred, with characteristics of rapidity, assertiveness, determination, a leadership that is recognised above all in men, corresponding to the stereotype "Think manager, think male" (V.E. Schein, 1973), in difficult times instead "Think Crisis, Think Female". The skills desired are different and preferably belong to the sphere of managing emotions, creating containers to manage resistance to change, empathy, attention to the problems of others. This is what Burns has defined as transformational leadership and the "communality" skills, considered (consciously or unconsciously) a "nice to have" in normal times, are recognised as central and allow women to be more seen as possible occupants of positions of power, because these skills correspond to the nurturing, maternal, relational female stereotype.

We could assume that this bias is one of the components that influenced the appointment in Suzanne's case, which was presented at the beginning of the post. The offer of the role of director of a key, visible, important, and 'political' project comes after a failure. Suzanne arrives amidst a context of loss of market share, disastrous results from the project, falling climate indicators, general discontent, and a high risk of failure. This is another characteristic of the Glass Cliff phenomenon. Excessive positive projections are arriving on the chosen woman. A possible hypothesis to explain the failure dynamics of the Glass Cliff can be made starting from Wilfred Bion's basic assumption of 'dependence' on the leader. The members of the organisation, confronted with their incompetence to work on the task, project all the power to get out of this failed situation onto the appointed woman. If she introjects the organisational projection, the stress generated by the risk of not succeeding and the realisation that the conditions for success are not met, can generate, on a personal level, an effective impossibility to act to the best of one's potential.  This personal dynamic is also paralleled by a system dynamic. The actors and actresses of the organisation, projecting all power onto the person of the leader, are deprived of responsibility for the transformation, the expectation, conscious and unconscious, is that the work will be done by someone else.

Another bias can be the cause of appointing a woman in this kind of situation. It is an unconscious desire, on the part of an organisational culture based on male stereotypes of success, to maintain the status quo and thus to see the appointed woman fail, so that the idea that power is a man's thing can be confirmed.

In our individual and collective accompaniment work, we have encountered the Glass Cliff not only on gender but also on specific roles - perhaps because they are perceived as deeply challenging the status quo, comparing to others more traditional function and roles, for example in sales, marketing, production and so on.  - in particular those that accompany, in various ways, Corporate Social Responsibility, or Responsible Investment. There are cases in which organisations seem to have set up the role in order to show that change is not possible, or that it is only on the shoulders of the person or function that takes it on, freeing the rest of the members of the company from responsibility. The person taking the role, in these cases, whether male or female, is acting on a very dangerous slope, from which it is easier to fall than to be effective.

As with all biases, the underlying unconscious dynamics of the Glass Cliff can be very mobilising and remain implicit if individually and collectively we cannot find the right distance to name them and the will to transform them.

What might be some concrete paths for doing so? Here are some clues that we have worked during Suzanne’s coaching, before she stepped into the role:

  1. Before taking on the role, Suzanne must carefully negotiate the resources that will be made available to her, commensurate with the importance of the project, the expected results, the impacts. She has to set, together with the direction, realistic and measurable indicators of success to anchor her action in reality. One of the most important resources for success is precisely the visible commitment of the company's top management and CEO, which must be clear and well-defined from the outset and, if necessary, revised following feedback during the action.
  2. A second step is to build a map of possible allies, create a strong network that can support her and provide her with resources to achieve her goals.
  3. Another important element is a groundwork on the organisational culture, on the one hand to bring out the mental models and to transform them, on the other hand to clarify everyone's expectations and responsibilities regarding the digital transformation project. The glass cliff becomes less dangerous if one is not alone in walking along it.
  4. Even deeper work involves clarifying stated and acted organisational leadership models and collectively questioning these models. Suzanne will need not only transformational leadership skills to enable her to deal with the emotional side and the resistance to transformation, but also agentic skills, when for example she will have to decide which practices to abandon because they no longer bring organisational vitality and how distruptive the change will have to be for the organisation. These competences are precisely those which, in contexts where gender stereotypes are present and unconsciously guide people's gaze, appreciation and judgement, find it difficult to be seen and accepted when they are expressed by women, from whom determination, assertiveness, speed and risk-taking are not collectively expected. The regenerative leadership model proves to be much more useful and inclusive, to get away from two-way models that risk reinforcing these stereotypes.

 

 

 


Sunk cost bias: when persevering beyond a reasonable doubt turns out to be a bad idea

We are reading a book that we are not liking at all. But we paid 20 euros for it, so we decide to finish it, in spite of Pennac and the third of his list of reader's rights which states "It is not necessary to finish a book". We are not satisfied with our work, our energy has been waning for a few years now and we no longer find much sense in it, we would like to do something else, maybe start again in another sector, in another role, or simply devote ourselves to cooking. We have an offer for a position below ours for a job we would love. But we've spent years training, getting degrees and Master's degrees to get a career, we can' t throw away everything we've achieved, better to stay. The project started two years ago in the company, which seemed to promise exceptional results, is not giving the expected results, despite all the corrective actions we have tried to take, despite the increase of the dedicated budget, despite the fact that the best engineers are working on it...we cannot leave it now, we have already invested too much, sooner or later it will bear fruit.

Maybe you recognized yourself in the three examples above, or maybe you can think of other situations in which continuing has prevailed over changing, stopping, doing something else. What they have in common is that, in spite of all the signals that tell us that the decision we have made needs to be revised, it is as if there is something acting on an individual and collective level: we cannot change it. Sometimes it's just a matter of stopping doing what we're doing, others, as in the case of changing jobs, of choosing between two alternatives, one of which, the one we don't choose, appears, if analyzed rationally, to be better. The root of this blockage is an unconscious evolutionary tendency. When faced with the possibility of interrupting an empty investment and therefore a future gain of resources to invest elsewhere, we tend instead to avoid losses, anchoring ourselves in the past: it is the bias (fallacy) of sunk costs, also known as Concorde effect, from the striking example of Anglo-French stubbornness in pursuing a failed investment.

This bias is not to be confused with perseverance, the ability to wait for the results of projects, actions, activities with an uncertain outcome but with a possible happy ending. The sunk costs bias concerns those situations in which there is no rational possibility of success, all the data confirm this and despite this we remain tenaciously attached. Clearly it is not only a matter of loss of an economic investment, the costs are also emotional and the higher the involvement we feel the more difficult it will be to let go of the object that has captured our energies. However, when perseverance becomes an ideal, a diktat, an absolute, when it is decontextualized and promoted as a feature always and only positive, using a male paradigm of reading success, the pressure to continue even what no longer makes sense, can become so strong that we lose sight of the rationality of persisting.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that this tendency isn't unique to humans, also clarifying why it's so hard to quit. In a paper published in 2018 in the journal Science are exposed the results of an experiment, which establish that even mice and rats are subject to this fallacy, opening, according to the researchers, many new avenues on the study, for example, of what happens to the brain in the case of addictions to drugs or other. The "sunk costs" accompany us in the towers of glass and steel in which we live our organizational life, another of the close links of the human species with the rest of the animal world. Also, in another interesting research from the American Psychological Association, sunk cost bias was studied in individuals from different cultures. The research shows that it is a cross-cultural bias that touches individuals from even very distant cultures.

The unrecoverable cost bias is not limited to damaging the rational choices of individuals, groups and organizations. It acts, and produces much greater damage, even at the level of economic and political macro-systems, making it difficult to fight climate change, especially in those sectors, such as energy, or construction, which are characterized by long-term investments, started in years of supposed/imagined continuity of low cost of fossil fuels, of non-regulation of emissions, of consumption without concern for the future of the planet. It is in these sectors, in which investments are recoverable only after decades of use, that it becomes more difficult to stop looking at the past and integrate rational elements in the decision, such as the agreement of the scientific community on the climate impacts of business as usual.

What can we do, at an individual, organizational, and societal level, to avoid falling into the trap of sunk costs?

We have seen above that the sunk cost bias finds fertile ground in an implicit understanding of the world in which the fact of letting go of what does not succeed, the abandonment of a project, of a job, of a production system, is read as a defeat, a shame, a weakness, something to be shunned. This kind of worldview does not contemplate the value of acknowledging error and vulnerability, and therefore risks anchoring us to the past, to an illusion of consistency, of equation between the effort made and the result hoped for, thus preventing us from seeing that persevering will only be the source of other irrational choices, other costs, other losses.  In Nexus we are particularly sensitive to this kind of bias because it is one of those that make regeneration impossible, preventing what must die from being let go and energy from being able to go where there is life, where the future asks us to be.

On an individual and collective level, it is important instead to slow down and bring what is unconscious to be explicit. What are the costs of continuity, what are the negative impacts on the future? The abandonment of a past in which one has invested a great deal starts with a process of revisiting, reinterpreting, allowing one to see the mental models that influence action in order to be able to transform them. It is a process analogous to that of Nature, which leads to the regeneration of the intention to align it with the evolutions of the context.