‘Myside Bias’ Isn’t A Problem If You Are Always Right. And If You Are, You Wouldn’t Be Reading This Column.
By Thomas J. Roach
“Myside bias,” or confirmation bias in the psychology books, is the tendency to ignore opinions that are contrary to your own. It also involves looking for, dwelling on and recalling only opinions with which you agree.
Communication in business needs to be a two-way process: listening, contemplating, responding, listening, contemplating, responding, listening, etc. This is essential for profitable businesses because the most successful businesses are the ones that monitor and adjust to changes in the environment.
Myside bias defeats healthy communication processes. If we allow ourselves to think everyone agrees with us, there is no need to listen, to communicate or to adjust. When we stop communicating we can’t adjust to the communication environment because we don’t know what it looks like, and not adjusting eventually is fatal.
In early January the 187,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon was occupied by a group of approximately 25 armed citizens who seized several buildings and removed a fence. They believe they are part of a national movement to force the federal government to release control of Western land for use by ranchers, farmers and loggers. At one point they even said they wanted to make the land available for quarrying, but don’t get your hopes up.
The only benefit to the aggregate industry is that this group of protesters serves as a reminder of the pitfalls of isolationist behavior and groupthink. It feels great to think you are surrounded by people who agree with you, but it feels bad when you find out you were mistaken, and that you took actions that will have to be modified or withdrawn.
This is a lesson that some business leaders never learn. Many company decision-makers don’t interface with the community and are surrounded by people who are dependent on them for their jobs. Unless they are encouraged and rewarded for independent thinking, fear and common sense will cause staff to agree with most of what their superiors say.
If managers are not in touch with publics outside of their immediate circle, and if they don’t encourage independent thinking within the circle, then they are at constant risk of myside bias.
How can you tell if myside bias is a problem? Well, when your neighbors hate you, your employees are suing you, the local government opposes you and industry agencies are fining you, and you still think you are right, you might be a victim of myside bias.
There is a time for questioning things and a time for following orders. Coworkers who always disagree with authority are just as problematic as coworkers who always agree with the boss.
Timing is everything. When ideas are first expressed, that is the best time to test them with counter arguments and probing questions. Good ideas will gain momentum from this process, and bad ideas will be exposed. Once leadership has made a decision, everyone needs to recognize the discussion is over and go to work.
The Rhythm of Communication
There is a rhythm to good internal communication, and effective leaders are like orchestra conductors calling forth the discussion and leading it to its natural conclusion.
Whenever there is a discussion about problems with quarry neighbors, worker complaints or the constraints of regulation, someone in the group needs to play devil’s advocate and articulate contrary opinions. The advocate doesn’t have to believe them, he or she just needs to bring them up and try to advance them. If the opposition advocate feels strongly about the issue, so much the better.
Encouraging meaningful debate internally makes sense when one considers that there is no way to predict the outcomes of contested relationships with publics outside the workgroup. If you can’t simulate or at least anticipate the discourse that goes on outside the conference room, then you can’t prepare to contend with it.
Of course myside bias isn’t a problem if you are always right. But if you were always right, you wouldn’t bother reading this column.