Confirmation bias
Fairytales for people managers, part 2
It was a lovely, warm summer evening. Lina, a head of marketing in a large company, was driving home from the office. The traffic was terrible – as usual this time of day – so Lina had a great deal of time to reflect on her argument with her subordinate, Denis, earlier this day.

They argued about entering a new market. Lina was sure that it would be a successful step for the organization because she believed the new market was attractive and lucrative. Actually, it was her idea, and she was going to present it to the CEO soon. However, Denis, vice versa, thought entering it would be a complete disaster.

– Look at these numbers, – said Lina pushing a list of paper with charts and diagrams towards Denis. They were sitting at the opposite sides of the table in Lina's office – Figures point to a unique opportunity for us. The market is soaring and will keep growing at least for several years. Isn't it a golden chance for us? Not only for the company but for you, me, and a whole team as well?
– I have seen the figures, and I see a vast trap, – replied Denis pushing the list back, – Yes, the market is soaring, but it means nothing to us. We don't have a product to enter it, and we don't even have an idea. There are strong competitors there, and we are not ready to fight with them.
– We are not ready now, I agree. But we'll get ready quickly! – exclaimed Lina.
– It is easier said than done. It will take us years, and in the meantime those guys at the market won't be standing still. But we'll spend so much time and resources to go there that it will loosen us on the domestic market, and at the end of the day, we will lose much more here than gain there.

Lina thought that Denis was too conservative, maybe even narrow-minded. She has been working with him for several years. So how come she didn't notice it? It definitely was a great opportunity for the company and for her, to be honest. She has been dreaming about a project like this for years. It will become the finest hour for her, and it will improve her CV so much…

Probably, Lina fell victim to confirmation bias. This cognitive error is "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values" (a quotation from Wikipedia). This project was Lina's idea; she believed in it, not least because it would be a big step for her career. So, she tended to see all the figures and facts as confirming her belief and maybe, subconsciously ignored all the warning signs. As a result, she was ready to call Denis narrow-minded rather than admit that he could prove her ideas wrong.

Lina's not an exception. We all make such mistakes every day. We love ideas and notions we believe in, so it's hard to give them up. And when our brain scans the world around us – newspaper articles, posts in social media feeds, views expressed by other people – we tend to filter everything that doesn't confirm our vision. It is dangerous even for ordinary people, let alone people managers. And if somebody disagrees with us, we should accept it as a precious gift because we can challenge our beliefs and make a wiser decision.

Svyatoslav Biryulin

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