How beliefs obstruct organisational learning - Team Business
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How beliefs obstruct organisational learning

How beliefs obstruct organisational learning

Beliefs including self-beliefs can be a huge obstacle to successful learning, problem solving, planning and decision-making.

Have you ever wondered why bad news seems to creep so slowly up the organisational hierarchy, if it moves at all and why (too often as it seems) we hear that senior management has met bad news with disbelief? You may have also noted the danger of the messenger being shot and the whistle blower being treated as though they are the problem rather than the issues they are revealing.

Dogged resistance to change, the demonization of opponents, hysterical opposition to alternative ideas and solutions and the persistent advocacy of anachronistic and otherwise highly inappropriate solutions tend to perpetuate our organisational problems not ease them. These familiar negative character traits cause untold harm to both organisational effectiveness and organisational learning and are responsible for any number of classic business and public sector failures.

Fortunately we now have a better understanding as to why people are so prone to this irrational and destructive behaviour. And with a better understanding there is some hope of adopting a solution.

The problem arises because there is a particular facet of the brain that filters out evidence from our conscious perception, if this evidence conflicts with our existing beliefs. The brain is wired in a way so that we literally can’t see what we don’t already believe. When this deception occurs, we make, what the psychologists term, a ‘premature cognitive commitment’.

In other words we jump to a conclusion based, not on available new evidence, but on some pre-conception, belief or emotional memory of some past associated event or situation.

An example from the animal world is well known in India. Traditionally, captive baby elephants are kept secure by tying one of their feet to a stake that is hammered into the ground. Although this method is sufficient to stop a baby elephant from running away, it is totally inadequate to stop a fully-grown one from uprooting the stake and ambling off. However, over the childhood years the young elephant develops a premature cognitive commitment to being unable to break free. This conditioning is so strong that as an adult it still ‘believes’ it is constrained. The grown elephant’s past experience conditions it to see the stake and chain as a lot stronger than they actually are.

Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias

As you can see, whenever we experience premature cognitive commitment we are suffering from a serious self-limiting belief. The brain seems programmed to use beliefs to help us make sense of a situation quickly, but sometimes this is at the expense of really learning what is going on. The problem occurs because we are comfortable with our beliefs, whereas the process of changing our beliefs or being confronted with their inadequacy can be acutely uncomfortable to us, as it triggers a stress response. This mental stress is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’.

The relevance to decision-making is that, in a situation where the apparent facts or evidence seem to contradict entrenched beliefs, cognitive dissonance compels us to do one of two things. In effect we get the choice of either doing what is right or doing what is easy – to reduce the pain of the dissonance we either change our belief to match the revealed facts or we try and preserve our belief by conducting what has been termed ‘confirmation bias’ (sometimes known as ‘myside bias’). Unfortunately a lot of the time, as a ruse to escape the stress of having our beliefs challenged, we prefer the second approach.

Seven ‘confirmation bias’ tactics

Confirmation bias means we actually engage in any one or more, of a range of less-than-useful tactics that help us perpetuate our belief. All this is done at the expense of blinding us to the truth. Such tactics include:

1.    Different forms of misperception of what is going on
2.    A hunt for evidence that backs our existing beliefs
3.    Rejection, or refutation of the contradictory information
4.    Misinterpretation of the information to reinforce our beliefs
5.    Seeking support from others who share the beliefs,
6.    Attempts to persuade others that our beliefs are valid anyway
7.    False or selective recall – remembering only what we want to remember
8.    Attributing negative or ulterior motives to those advocating views that conflict with our beliefs

Premature cognitive commitment and its ugly protégé cognitive dissonance explain why bad news about an organisation is often met with disbelief by senior managers. It also explains why the people at the top often find it difficult to accept any negative feedback that disrupts their settled worldview of how they are running things.

As a result, negative feedback moves slowly up the hierarchy, if at all. The peculiarity of the brain’s filtering system also explains why those who offer differing opinions or expose the facts are often chastised or gagged and termed ‘whistle blowers’.

The tendency to shoot the messenger further reinforces senior management’s isolation from operational reality and further constricts ‘bounded rationality’.

Cognitive dissonance

As we know, executives, like the rest of us have cognitive limitations that restrict their view of what is going on in their own organisation. Unfortunately the existence of this ‘bounded rationality’ does not’ prevent managers from believing they know what’s going on and from acting accordingly.

This delusion is obviously dangerous.

Of course it does not’t help matters, where these beliefs have become self-serving. And in today’s corporations and public sector organisations, senior managers have the self-serving need to protect status and careers with six-figure salaries and pensions to match.

The higher up the organisation they go, it becomes depressingly more difficult for bosses to acknowledge that their beliefs might be at odds with reality. The scale of their adverse reaction is directly proportionate to the amount of status, power, money and reputation under threat.

Public sector organisations lack a Darwinian balancing mechanism to penalise confirmation bias

In private enterprises, market factors such as an alert competition, fickle customers and or investors voting with their feet may sooner or later jolt management out of its Alice in Wonderland world or drive the company into bankruptcy. However, public sector organisations and state sponsored charities tend not to have this Darwinian balancing mechanism. Delusion and therefore failure is perpetuated by a weakness in accountability either from below or above. The consequences, as we have seen from a string of public sector projects can be disappointing performance at best and at worst catastrophic failure.

A recent example of catastrophe, was at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council in the UK. In this, abysmal case of almost inconceivable incompetence the local social services and allied agencies failed to protect over a thousand children from what has been termed ‘industrial scale’ brutality, perpetrated by predatory gangs of mostly Pakistani sex abusers. Professor Alexis Jay, who wrote a damning independent report on the scandal, (incidentally this report was initially met with disbelief by the council) asserts that, “nobody could say ‘I didn’t know’.” Unfortunately given what we now know about ‘bounded rationality’ and the associated problems of premature cognitive commitment and cognitive dissonance, that is probably what happened – the people at the top subconsciously refused to see anything that conflicted with their existing beliefs.

The Rotherham case shows how beliefs embedded in the culture of an organisation can attract the same drawbacks as beliefs held by individuals, in terms of their impact on rational thinking. In that instance, like a lot of other councils and public sector authorities in the UK, just one of the prevalent politically correct beliefs is Multiculturalism. The way this manifested in Rotherham was that there was an institutional disbelief that one ethnic group was committing the predatory sex crimes. There seem to have been a couple of other institutional beliefs that got in the way of the facts.

One was the belief that the ‘sorts of girls’ who were being abused were ‘asking for it’ anyway. (According to Simon Danczuk MP writing about the scandal in a Times article, the director of children’s services implied to him that young girls who were being raped were ‘making lifestyle choices’.) Another entrenched belief was the typically self-serving one that government-run child protection agencies do a better job of protecting children than their parents can. (Some parents were actually arrested for trying to protect their children from harm).

The use of the phrase ‘self-serving’ may seem harsh here, but nevertheless it is fully justified. The purpose of the child protection services is to protect children. Believing this to be the case gives important meaning to the work being done by the teams of social workers and their managers. And meaning, is an important motivational human need. Where the evidence on the ground suggests that this protection is far from working, then this important sense of meaning is violated. Violating an emotional human need, as we know, can quickly trigger a powerful stress response. In other words the sort of cognitive dissonance provoked by this type of situation where the evidence conflicts directly with both the subject’s belief and sense of meaning is extremely uncomfortable. The experiencer is faced with evidence that undermines the very purpose of their work, their belief in their own competence (a feeling of competence also being an emotional need) and perhaps the validity of their organisation. As a result, the reptilian survival mechanism kicks in and it becomes far easier, quicker and simpler to ignore the evidence, carry on as usual and try and persuade everybody that everything is OK (confirmation bias tactic number six, as seen above). This is by way of an explanation not an excuse.

As you can no doubt imagine, with these sorts of ideologies embedded in Rotherham’s child protection system, it was chronically unable to see what would have been blindingly obvious to any objective observer in their rational mind – Professor Jay, for one. (Another observer who managed to retain her rational mind was the ‘whistle blower’ Jayne Senior, a youth service manager who passed on 200 files to the Times in a successful attempt to expose the horrors going on. Typically, the response from the local council was to seek a criminal inquiry into the identity of the whistle blower. Again, cognitive dissonance prevented them taking a far healthier approach such as embracing the information as invaluable bottom-up feedback as to the reality of the situation.)

When an ideology takes root, the learning stops and executives behave like corporate zombies

The key lesson is that when an ideology takes root, the learning stops and executives behave like corporate zombies refusing to see what they don’t already believe in. The prevalence of ideologies in public bureaucracies is another reason why they are innately disadvantaged when it comes to adapting and refining procedures and processes in response to new information or dynamically changing circumstances.

Premature cognitive commitment also explains why in the political arena, ideological parties and regimes tend to be repressive and obstruct social and economic progress. The fervent belief in their respective ‘isms’ prevents adherents from processing adverse information that contradicts their belief and instead compels them to embark on an evangelical crusade to persuade others to follow the same beliefs. Other less than useful results include dogged resistance to change, the demonisation of opponents, hysterical opposition to alternative ideas and solutions and the persistent advocacy of anachronistic and otherwise highly inappropriate solutions that tend to perpetuate the problems not ease them; all this to escape the pain of adapting to new ideas and new evidence. The good news is that sooner or later ideologically driven causes, movements, parties, governments and institutions are prone to self-destruct. The bad news is that before they go down, they can do untold harm and damage to their stakeholders and anyone else who gets in the way.

Self-belief is an obstacle to self-awareness and learning.

Unfortunately this belief mechanism works for self-beliefs as well. Our beliefs about ourselves get in the way of seeing the reality about ourselves. The way this works is that from childhood onwards we cultivate self-beliefs that at the time may have helped us come to terms with the complex and sometimes, chaotic or traumatic world we lived in. Unfortunately as life goes on and circumstances change, these beliefs form emotional impressions in the mind that filter out any evidence that contradicts them.

I worked with a business owner once who liked to believe she took a genuine, almost maternal interest in her employees’ welfare. In truth she was very personable and charming and often showed attentiveness to her employees’ concerns, their families and so on. However the underlying reality was that her business didn’t’t make a lot of money and significantly, the money it did make was largely due to the low wages she paid and her personal persuasiveness in getting people to do a lot of free overtime. The average overtime was about 20 hours a month, but some key staff did a lot more. Now with 100 employees each doing an average 20 hours free overtime she was neatly adding about £200,000 or so of free work to the bottom line profit. This made life quite comfortable for her financially.

Instead of taking responsibility to study the systemic reasons for her organisation’s poor performance and so make it easier for her people to do their work, the owner preferred to focus her energies on team building exercises, and her ‘coaching style’ of leadership. These latter activities appealed a lot more to her self-belief about being a compassionate and caring team leader.

Essentially the owner was very good at getting the staff to hold the company together by their excessive input of energy and goodwill and she lived well off their hard work and low pay. Ironically, although the owner was well liked around the business, there was a steady drain of the longer term, experienced employees leaving due to burnout and stress. This attrition of experience had a further deleterious impact on the efficiency of the system.

So, in other words the reality of the working environment was the very opposite of her self-belief of being a ‘nice boss’. Drawing her attention to this fact led to something of an emotional arousal; in this instance expressed as self-righteous indignation. People don’t like their self-beliefs shaken; it frightens them.

Senior management’s self-confidence can be a costly delusion

The type of person occupying the higher reaches of a large organisation usually arrives at this level due in large part to a high degree of self-confidence in their own ability and judgement. This self-belief in their ability to manage is not necessarily matched by reality. The unsettling implication here for organisational design is that as status rises with promotion, so this self-belief becomes more and more ingrained. Thus, once a manager has achieved high office, it becomes even more difficult for inputs of contrary information to penetrate and alter their cherished self-beliefs.

This factor is never clearer than when attempting performance improvements.

I often find that where an executive has cultivated a belief about their own high level of competence, it is very difficult for them to accept that, lagging organisational performance may be due to inadequacies in the system. They after all ‘own’ the system and as they believe they are so competent, it follows that the system must be OK. It is far easier and less painful for them to believe that where things are going wrong that someone somewhere must be ‘screwing up’. It is this delusion that provokes a search for the culprits rather than a hard look at the weaknesses of their own creation. Unfortunately, the whole ‘witch-hunt’ process creates more organisational stress and further damages the organisation’s ability to operate effectively.

This type of denial flies in the face of the sound ‘systems thinking’ principle that 95% of variations in performance are due to the system and only 5% are due to the people. The search for someone to blame misses huge opportunities for renewal and improvement and perpetuates a cycle of decline and low productivity.

Confirmation bias is not inevitable

As you can hopefully see, confirmation bias is highly destructive of organisational learning, but it can be remedied. We are not condemned by our psycho-physiologies to automatic crass stupidity when confronted with radical new ideas or changes that contradict our existing beliefs and settled world view. There is no space in this article to go into all the various remedies available, suffice to say that they fall into three categories of ‘self help’, ‘third party help’ and ‘leadership intervention’. Appropriate leadership intervention can be particularly useful, especially where it involves group collaboration as this tends to reduce stress levels among the participants.

As these problems are so widespread, it is highly advantageous for leaders to avoid rushing the planning process and instead take the time and trouble to go through a structured team-based approach to decision-making. Such an approach (see diagram) enables the deliberate development of a decision through a sequence of seven steps that involve thorough research, root cause analysis, ongoing consultation with relevant stakeholders and a balanced evaluation of alternative solutions.

One of the benefits of this approach is that it helps to ensure that decisions are made in context, so you can avoid unintended consequences. Another benefit is that the collaborative approach comprises a powerful aid to reducing personal stress levels. The lower stress levels help override the default mechanism of stressed thinking provoked by cognitive dissonance. In my book ‘Reinventing management thinking’ I outline eight ways this sort of team planning reduces stress and confirmation bias. But training managers to develop a working understanding of ‘systems thinking’ also helps them overcome the prejudice that their people are screwing up, when the reality is that it is the system that is failing.

This article is based on chapter 11 of “Reinventing management thinking – Using science to liberate the human spirit” by Jeremy Old, now available from Amazon


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