“Automobile drivers consistently rate themselves as better than average — even when a test of their hazard perception reveals them to be below par”, said Mark Horswill, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, in an interview for an article in LiveScience. “You find it across all ages, you find it among novice drivers, and you find it among drivers over age 65.”
This phenomena, known as cognitive bias, is something that we all exhibit at one time or another. It is a tendency to think in ways that lead to inaccurate judgment. This bias, which Horswill describes, is known as an illusion of superiority. In the case of automobile drivers, a persistent superiority bias gets in the way of drivers improving their skills and often leads to accidents. For teams that demonstrate this superiority bias, the results are similar – a lack of learning from mistakes and stunted improvements in performance. The interesting question is: why do biases which are unsupported by facts, and result in predictable harm, persist?
Bias is a Habit
In his book, The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Charles Duhigg reduces the complex, psychological phenomena of a habit into an easy to understand three-part formula consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward. More specifically:
- The cue is the trigger for an action that you do on a consistent basis.
- The routine is the action you take because of the cue.
- The reward is the benefit that results from the routine.
One observation from my research into highly-effective teams is that leaders of the highest-performing teams are good at limiting the illusion of superiority when it comes to their team’s performance.
One observation from my research into highly-effective teams is that leaders of the highest-performing teams are good at limiting the illusion of superiority when it comes to their team’s performance. Those team leaders focus on measurable results versus goals, including ‘soft’ measures such as the level of engagement of their team members. This is in stark contrast to team leaders who crow about the superiority of their team despite data to the contrary. Those team leaders put significant energy into massaging the data and explaining the results in the most positive manner possible.
While I found the differences between higher and lower performing teams interesting, it did not explain the underlying behaviors. Digging further, I found the explanation rooted in the consistent, instinctive actions that different team leaders took in response to triggers in their organizational environment. In layman’s terms: their habits.
Team leaders who are in the habit of creating a bias that distorts the reality of their team’s performance follows a pattern along these lines:
- The Cue is receiving results and feedback on team performance for the past quarter that is below target.
- The Routine is the development of powerpoint slides for presentation to management that spins data in a favorable light, minimizes deficiencies, and overemphasizes any positive outcome, irrespective of relevance.
- The Benefit for the team leader and their team is a temporary feeling of being justified in claiming to be highly-effective and top performing.
Kicking the Superiority Bias Habit
While on the surface, the habit of encouraging a superiority bias may seem harmless, it impedes learning and change. Changing that habit requires applying the habit building behavior that high-performing teams consistently demonstrate:
- The Cue: receiving results and feedback on team performance for the past quarter that were below targets.
- The Routine: sit with the team to review detailed results and develop actions with owners to close gaps in performance. Then, develop a presentation for management that focuses on the gaps, why there are gaps, and the actions to close them.
- The Benefit: for the entire team is a strong sense of connection to the actions that will improve effectiveness in both the short and long term. This fosters energy, commitment, and well-being across the team.
That combination of cue, routine, and reward can be established for any team. Breaking the habits that feed a superiority bias and developing new ones is not easy. You must lead longer-term improvement while facing the pressure to deliver near-term results. The leaders who successfully navigate that challenge share a common understanding which focuses on assessing unvarnished performance data and leads to better team performance and well-being.