David Brooks, in his October 28 New York Times column, cited the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in describing the kind of thinking that has gotten us into the economic mess in which we currently find ourselves. Brooks writes that we have:
…perceptual biases that distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to over-value recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck.
This short paragraph is an excellent summary of decades of psychological research on perception and decision-making. This research has confirmed that we humans have innate tendencies that result in fallacious thinking. This kind of thinking is not only a contributor to our economic problems but also is a cause of many of the performance problems that we have in the workplace. It is a kind of thinking that is a barrier to organizational learning. For example, if we believe that people who come from a culture that is different from our own are inferior, we will look for data to confirm that belief. If we have had a recent failure with a cross-functional team, we will assume that all future cross-functional teams will fail. If we know of a manager who has received coaching to improve his leadership but continues to lead an unproductive team, we will assume that coaching doesn’t work. If our sales team gets great numbers one month, we will believe that something we did made the difference.
The same basic human behavioral tendencies that get us into trouble economically, get us into trouble everyday in the workplace. We need to be aware that we have these tendencies and look for signs of this behavior before we make decisions. This has nothing to do with being smart or experienced. It’s the way the human mind works (possibly because of an ancient survival instinct) and can only be changed through diligent self-reflection and feedback from others.