The Blind Spot that Will Limit Your Leadership

Have a look at the image above. It’s a picture of a Ferris Wheel.

Does it look like it’s moving to you? For many people the answer is a resounding YES.

Now, take a look at the image below, currently making the viral rounds on the internet. What do you see?

Many see a beach, with a sky, waves, and sand.

It’s actually the dented rear gate of a pickup truck.

What’s going on? It’s the sneakiness of the human mind at work.

We like to think of ourselves as thoughtful, rational beings. We like to think that we're objective. We operate from the norm that our eyes are our window onto reality, and we see things as they really are.

Yet, that's not how things really work. The big reason? Our minds don't just perceive. They also interpret. We are, as psychologist Dan Ariely aptly named his bestselling book, Predictably Irrational. Your mind has all sorts of irrational filters that skews your sensory input. Your version of "reality" is very much influenced by your own internal beliefs, assumptions, and values. As such, it turns out that it’s less true that "seeing is believing" and more true that "believing is seeing".

One of the biggest irrational biases that humans have is confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out or interpret information in a way that validates what you already think or believe. It's our way of cherry-picking data to support what we already believe is right.

“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Warren Buffett

Here's an example of confirmation bias in action: Recently, I was at the Amsterdam airport, heading out on a business trip. I stopped in at the airport market pick up a salad for the flight. I've stopped in and bought salads there many times before. I've noticed that if the store is trying to sell off salads that are close to their expiration date, they put a "Verkoop" (Sale) sticker, often with a 30% or 40% discount.

I picked up a Mediterranean Pesto Chicken salad with a sticker. However, when I got to the self-service check-out register, the scan did not acknowledge the discount. I called over a nearby employee. I explained to that there was supposed to be a discount. He looked at the salad, then looked at me, and said, with typical Dutch directness: No, there's not.

I was a bit incredulous. I know that I'm an American living in the Netherlands, but if there's a discount listed, it should be honored. I asked to speak to the manager.

Soon Saskia, the manager came over to help me. Saskia is a tall woman with piercingly blue eyes. I explained my situation to Saskia, and I got a similar reply: There's no discount.

I was unwilling to take no for an answer. This second time, I was ready to prove my case. I pointed at the sticker on the package, and said, "But look! It's says 30% off!"

Saskia looked at the package and broke into a huge grin. She looked up at me and said,

Um, actually what this says on the sticker is 30% fewer carbohydrates.

Then she showed it to me to read.

What?! I looked at the sticker yet again; perhaps my 5th or 6th time. Yet, it wasn't until that moment that I realized it read "30% minder koolhydraten"--30% less carbs.

How had I missed it up until now? I’d seen the "30%" and my confirmation bias brain had jumped to "30% discount". Needless to say, I walked out of the market with my head hanging low.

In my salad situation, other than some minor embarrassment on my side, there was no major harm done from my bias. But sometimes we don’t get off that easy. Unchecked confirmation bias can lead to major errors in judgment. Faulty judgment leads to making bad decisions--which creates poor results.

For instance, let's say you're having a challenge working with one your direct reports. You want to talk about it with a colleague. Who do you reach out to first? Is it someone who is likely to side with what you already suspect? If that's the case, how much deeper does that dig you into the hole of your position? How willing are you gather additional data before you reach your final conclusion?

So what's a leader to do?

Leaders need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. To deal with confirmation bias, you have to get uncomfortable. First, accept the uncomfortable fact that your thinking is flawed, biased and subjective. It just is: you’re human.

Next, (and this is uncomfortable, too), actively seek out evidence that supports an opinion contrary to your your beliefs. This takes courage and humility. It means being willing to hold your convictions a little more loosely. It means being genuinely curious to seek out opposing points of view. In the end, you may wind up with the same decision that you thought you would—but you’ll be so much wiser for having asked around. And after all, won’t demonstrating humility, courage and curiosity along the way make you a better leader?

How has confirmation bias impacted your leadership? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.