Derailers are the primary reason why employees make poor decisions and lose focus during corporate leadership training programs. They can impact thinking to such an extreme that an individual’s ability to learn, much less think, is rendered dull. We’ve found four primary culprits when it comes to derailers in professional development training programs: bias, attention, fear and choice. Here is an overview of the first two main derailers we found participants exhibiting within our business simulations when confronted with difficult and complex situations. I’ll dive into the other two in a post next week.

Bias

The brain is an incredible machine, continuously processing experiences to add to our understanding of our environment and prompting us to act based on these experiences. Sometimes, however, the models it constructs are flawed, and the brain itself contributes to the noise by seeking data to confirm a preconceived belief. This is referred to as bias.

Human beings have a tendency to avoid information that might disprove our current ideas or throw our decision making into question. Instead, we seek—often without realizing it—answers that confirm our own biases. Bias is a type of internal noise that filters our experiences and affects the way we understand the world around us, allowing us to see what we want to see. It is a human tendency to draw a conclusion without considering the entire system or all of the evidence. As we gather information, our brains naturally reference memories and facts to interpret it based on what we already know. Often, the bias arises from one of three preformed sources:

  • Information processing shortcuts, in which an individual makes an educated assumption, applying a general theory or overview rather than taking the time to fully review and consider information
  • Social influences or beliefs, which assume that something must be true because our belief system has taught us that it is
  • Motivational factors, which direct people to seek or consider primarily information that supports their existing ideas

The information that employees receive is rarely entirely accurate, complete, and unbiased. The survey results on your desk, the report from your co-worker, even the news on television—all of it has been filtered. Pieces may have been left out or distorted. Opinions may have influenced the conclusions.

There are many different types of biases, but these are the biases that my colleagues and I observed most often in our professional development training programs:

  • Confirmation bias is one of the most detrimental to good decision making because it replaces deep thinking with consuming efforts to find information that will confirm a preconceived idea or theory. The project lead only seeks information that supports his reasons for why the project is over budget.
  • Self-serving bias, or the “it’s not my fault” bias, focuses on placing the blame for failure elsewhere. It’s amazing how when things get complicated, people act but do not want to take responsibility if the solution fails. When an initiative does not work, they find someone or something to blame. The account manager did not scope the project correctly! The leaders did not give me enough direction! If I only I had been allowed more time, I would have made a better decision.
  • Framing is the process of selecting words that will encourage certain interpretations and discourage others. A situation can evoke different responses when presented using different words and context. For example, “global warming” versus “climate change” or “12 months” versus “1 year” both evoke different emotions and thoughts. Framing is the most notorious culprit for causing world and organizational noise. It’s effective because it pushes receivers of the message toward a preferred belief, giving people a mental shortcut to a conclusion. Politicians and leaders commonly use framing to package information in a certain way so it is more easily accepted by constituents.
  • Anchoring occurs when someone relies too much on one piece of information and, as a result, places less importance on other data points.
  • Bandwagon effect occurs when people do or believe the same thing because many others do or believe the same thing. I like to call this social politeness bias. In an effort to strive for consensus, we observed teams selecting not to properly appraise alternative courses of action. And when there is an executive on the team, everyone feels they should align with the business leader’s view.
  • Information bias is the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect the outcome. With today’s vast information resources, this is becoming more of a problem. When faced with fears of being wrong or organizational pressures such as downsizing, teams often seek information for the sake of it. The result is lots of activity, but no significant movement forward.
  • Overconfidence happens all too often when people overestimate their abilities. People may feel so certain about the validity of a certain piece of information or an action that they will follow through with it blindly, even though it’s incorrect. Often, people who are confident about a plan tend to get approval over those who raise objections and point out risks. We see this behavior a lot in business simulations. Participants do well in the first few rounds, become overly confident, and stop learning because they think they know better.

 

As you can imagine, if biases go unchecked, they may lead a highly talented and intelligent group of workers down the wrong path.

Attention

Attention made the derailer list because it has a direct impact on both learning and development training and the effectiveness of quality thinking. A few years ago, the New York Times interviewed the 2005 MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”) winners. When reporters asked the winners how they spent their daily commuting time, many said that they put their cell phones and iPods away, using the time instead for thinking without distraction.

The constant connectivity of the world and up-to-the-minute demands make it difficult for many of us to disconnect and engage in reflection. When was the last time you were able to separate from the world to think? How long has it been since you turned off e-mail at work to focus on one project? Or disconnected at home to reflect on your life?

Our constant connection to technology can negatively affect our productivity and effectiveness. An information technology research firm in New York City found that interruptions now consume more than two hours of the average workday or 28 percent of our available time. Is the answer, then, better multitasking? No!

Though employers say that the ability to multitask is one of the top characteristics they look for when interviewing candidates, studies support the theory that instead of adding to efficiency, juggling numerous projects and responsibilities actually steals company time and resources. When people try to multitask, they often create more problems by missing critical information or depleting mental resources. An individual’s ability to provide valuable thought is diminished.

“Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn,” said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of Psychology and co-author of a 2006 study that examined participants’ abilities while distracted. Poldrack’s research also found the following:

Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multi-tasking, you will use different brain systems. The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember.

In another study, Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School evaluated the daily work patterns of more than 9,000 individuals working on projects that required creativity and innovation under varying levels of time pressure. She and her colleagues confirmed that people are more creative when they focus on one activity for most of the day.

Still not convinced you should turn off your e-mail while reading this post? Then here is another insightful study. Curious about how chronic multi-taskers process information, researchers at Stanford University classified 262 university students as “heavy-media” or “low-media” multi-taskers based on the number of media (television, music, computer games, phone calls, etc.) they consumed simultaneously.

Based on the results of two questionnaires and three cognitive tests, the study concluded that heavy-media multi-taskers were more likely to respond to stimuli outside their primary focus, and have greater difficulty filtering irrelevant information. Surprisingly, chronic multi-taskers even performed more poorly on task-switching exercises than their low-media multitasking peers.

With so many demands surrounding us all the time, it’s tempting to try to do it all, and all at the same time. The truth, however, is that multitasking actually slows people—and organizations—down. Our brains are optimized to focus on one task at a time. Spreading our attention across multiple tasks becomes draining and leaves little energy for those tasks that matter most. When we switch between tasks, our brains must halt any processing of the current rule sets and load a new set of rules. This happens quickly, but halting, unloading, loading, and restarting take their toll on productivity and our mental and emotional energy.

The continuous partial attention we apply to tasks not only results in subpar performance, but it also erodes our energy. It’s truly amazing the control that beeps have on our brains – the email ping, the allure of a tweet and the wonderment of the instant message are consuming the daily supply of brain power. Sometimes, we simply do not have the energy to approach situations in a well-rounded, mindful way.

Perhaps those Genius Grant winners are on to something.

Check back next week for insights on the other two primary derailers we see most during corporate leadership training programs: fear and choice.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

Mike Vaughan

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