Leaders, Get Rid of Your Confirmation Bias
You’re familiar with confirmation bias: it’s the tragic phenomenon that occurs “when people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true.” And all of us engage in it. If we’re not fans of a particular fast food brand and yet end up in their drive through, any misstep will serve our predisposed notions that they’re literally the worst. If we march under a particular political banner, our favorite candidate(s) can’t do any wrong, they’re just unfairly victimized by the media. If we distrust something in the character of a co-worker, we tend to be on high alert for things that will back up our gut feelings.
And unfortunately, it’s all too easy to let this bleed over into leadership. If a volunteer lets us down once, we’re more likely to doubt them in the future. We let our negative bias towards a situation color any conversation around that situation. We unfairly lower our expectations and then secretly hope they’ll be met.
So how do we get rid of confirmation bias when it comes to those we lead? There are five ways that have been helpful in my own leadership journey:
1. Assume the best.
Several years ago, my pastor made this statement in a staff meeting: “We need to assume that our co-workers are smart and have good intentions.” Over the years, that’s been shortened to the staff plumb line, “We assume the best.” It’s far too easy to assume the worst about a volunteer: they’re not going to show up on time (if they show up at all). They’re not going to bring their A-game. They’re going to foul up a guest interaction again. But when we do that, we set ourselves up for confirmation bias against them.
What if we started every volunteer encounter with the assumption that they’re smart and have good intentions? That fundamentally changes how we view them, and it adds God’s grace into the equation…something that we sometimes refuse to give.
2. Get an outside perspective.
Let’s confess together: sometimes it’s so hard to assume the best. We can travel so far down the road of negative assumptions, a U-turn feels impossible.
That’s why it’s helpful to find a trusted friend who trusts the volunteer you distrust, and get their perspective. With no leading questions, with no qualifying statements, and with no nudges towards negativity, simply ask, “Hey, you know _____ pretty well. What do you see as some of her particular strengths?” And then shut up. Let your friend navigate the journey through their eyes, and not your own. Hearing it from their voice can serve to squash your own voice.
3. Ask, “How are they smart?”
In Liz Wiseman’s excellent book Multipliers, she says that asking “Is this person smart?” is the wrong question. Instead, we should ask “How is this person smart?” I promise you that everyone is smart in some way. Everyone. When you explore how are they smart, you may discover that they’re better suited for a different volunteer role where they’ll thrive. You might find out that you’re under-utilizing them where they are.
4. Create a positive bias.
This is the hard part. You’re going to have to reframe your viewpoint of that volunteer that gets under your skin. Our natural gravitational pull is towards the negative. Sure, it’s going to take some work to follow steps 2 and 3 above, but it’s going to be an all-out battle to apply the results of steps 2 and 3 to your relationship.
However, when we create a positive bias – when we refuse to assume the worst and we identify ways that this person is smart – we come out of the gate with a different viewpoint. If we can see them through rose-colored glasses of our own creation, we may be surprised at how much that volunteer will improve.
5. Pray about it.
This is the trite-and-expected point #5 of a ministry leader’s blog. But just because it’s expected doesn’t mean that it’s not absolutely true. Changing your confirmation bias doesn’t happen by just powering through and hoping your heart will change. No, this is a work of the Spirit of God. When I find that a volunteer, a co-worker, or a friend has become a victim of my negativity, I have to add them to a specific list that I pray for.
And here’s the important thing: I’m not praying for them as much as I’m praying for me: praying that my viewpoint will improve. Praying that my heart will soften. And praying that I’ll see them as the imago dei that they are.
I find these prayers to be most helpful prior to engaging with the person in question. Whether it’s on the way to church or on the way in a meeting, talking to God about the person before talking to the person has a fairly miraculous effect.
It’s painful to admit, but all of us have people we’ve developed a confirmation bias against. The question is, how will you reverse that trend with the one name that’s going through your mind right now?