Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cognitive bias trumps intelligence

I always felt being smart was one of my major advantages in business--and there's no doubt that being well-informed and full (perhaps over-full?) of ideas helped in getting promotions, raises, etc.

What I've learned in the past couple of years has shaken that belief to the core. In particular, the writings of Dan Gilbert, Malhotra & Bazerman on negotiations, and Dave Snowden et. al. on complexity in management and business, have had a particular impact in revising this viewpoint, to the point that I won't take an important decision without reviewing it, at minimum, with the Vice President of Common Sense.

Central to this thinking is the idea that cognitive biases can cause us to overestimate our ability to make sound decisions, routinize complex situations, fail to see threats and weaknesses in our reasoning, and personalize conflicts. All leading to poor decisions, and sometimes decisionmaking disasters.

The way to overcome these dangers is to work with others, to consult, carefully listen (especially to dissenting viewpoints). In short, to shelve one's own learning and accept others' input with an open mind and heart. And in something that goes against my nature, to slow down and be patient.

For me, serving on a nonprofit's board of directors the past two years or so has been a signal lesson in the benefits of humility and collective thinking. Sharing monthly meetings with people possessing important skills that I lack utterly--knowledge of fundraising, city politics, risk management and others--but yet being able to contribute nonetheless through listening and inquiring has been revelatory. I am still learning, as you might guess, to listen hard to the "non-experts" on our board on subjects I know something about.

(Photo by Max Brown via stock.xchng)

Related posts:
Malhotra & Bazerman
Senior Leadership Teams

, , , , , ,