Beware your confirmation bias

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I love data.

I love data, I love data analysis and I love evidence. Maybe not as much as Rob Briner, but that’s a tall order – we can’t all be that weird.

I hate assumption.

I worry that in the HR profession we’re increasingly happy to throw relevant information to one side and follow arguments that we personally value, even when the data suggests to the contrary. I’m especially worried that the whole “Human focussed HR” is being used as a cover all for sloppy, stupid thinking.

Two conversation happened last week that made me reflect on this in more detail. Now, the conversations in themselves weren’t stupid and the proponents were well meaning, but the arguments being made exemplified this risk.

I tweeted this:

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I’m increasingly interested in the psychology of technology and the way in which our behaviour is manipulated by technology companies. It isn’t new, retailers have been using behavioural manipulation for years, but it is naive of us to assume that technology is purely about liberation. We are given the sense of being super connected, when in fact we are depriving ourselves of many other types of social contact and integration. You can look at the research on this and there is an increasing body that shows the potential dangers.

A number of people responded to me that this wasn’t the case, that I was talking rubbish and that in fact we were all more connected than ever. I asked for evidence, I got none. I asked for data, I got none. We are more connected, we just can’t prove it.

Then I saw this,

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Both of these were being used to argue that compensation was really unimportant when compared to culture. It’s an argument that I hear a lot, it isn’t the money, it’s the culture. Ok.

But let’s reposition that data.

“Work life balance is unimportant compared to the senior leadership of an organisation”

Because, the data also suggests that. I’m not sure I hear many proponents of this argument in the world of HR. I don’t hear people arguing that no-one cares about work life balance as long as you’ve got top quality (well paid?) senior management.

The point is this. We need to be careful of our confirmation bias, we need to be careful of seeing the information we believe in and not the information as a whole. The arguments are rarely simple, they’re complex. They’re rarely linear, they’re multi faceted. And we need to be able to explore complexity and make appropriate conclusions based on evidence.

I believe in a more human workplace, I believe in making things better for employees and employers, for society. We will only do that by approaching this in a scientific, detailed and thought through way. Not by making bland assertions based on our gut instinct and personal beliefs.

If we want this, the evidence is there, we just need to be thoughtful enough to discuss all of it – even the bits we don’t agree with.

Is this liberation?

My daughter told me this week about a conversation with one of her friends. The subject was whether it was possible to complete your homework without access to the internet. Before we all start to roll our eyes and talk about generations, it was a thoughtful conversation about whether the sources of data that were available to them offline would be sufficient versus the wealth of data available online.

I’ve been known to say that my children think they know everything, because they have Google. The smartphone and the search capability provide them with a surrogate brain and borrowed knowledge. Maybe there is something wrong with that, maybe there isn’t.

What I do question, is whether we are effectively outsourcing our decision making capability to technology and therefore losing the skills and experience to help us effectively and quickly work things out.

When I worked in a bar as a student, the landlord refused to have an electronic till. Instead we had one of the old push button ones with a cash drawer that pinged open with delight and the very real risk of losing a kidney. As a student of economics and accounting at the time, my maths was never stronger than when I was running mental totals of drinks orders for customers who would invariably use it as a chance to question your answer.

In the modern workplace, we rarely calculate anything ourselves. Walk around the streets of any town or city and you’ll see people looking at their phones to show them the direction. We are more likely to look at an app, than out of the window, to know the weather.

In some ways, if we’re using the liberation from the mundane to focus our minds on higher matter, the more complicated and meaningful topics, then you have to argue that this is a huge step forward. If the systemisation of the transactional allows us to learn, to be curious and thoughtful; to read, to think, to share, to talk and grow.

But if we are being led down the path of unconscious disempowerment and the destruction of creativity, problem solving and reduction of our innate ability to guesstimate, approximate and divine, then we need to think again.

If our liberation merely allows us the ability to take photos of our food and share them with people we have never met, to find out where we need to be, without knowing where we are, to be given an answer, without understanding the question. If our liberation does nothing more than reduce the sum of our parts, we have to question whether that is liberation at all. When we are beholden on something or someone else to allow us to fulfil our lives, we are more likely to find ourselves trapped, rather than free.

Structural madness

I used to work in an organisation that liked to restructure on a regular basis. The joke was that you could tell which day of the week it was based on whether there was an announcement about some sort of change. If you stayed in the organisation long enough, you got to see all the things that were undone, redone. It was a kind of cyclical musical chairs, but without the music, or a winner.

The more I learn about business and organisational performance, the more I realise that restructures mostly don’t improve either. And if there is any improvement, it is normally only marginal compared to the uncertainty, insecurity and disruption that are caused.

Most reorganisations fall into four categories:

  1. A new leader arrives and determines that they want to do things differently
  2. Something is not happening that the organisation wants to happen
  3. There is a need to reduce the cost base of the organisation
  4. Somebody leaves or there is an organic reorganisation of work and responsibilities

I’d go as far as to say that only the last of these makes any real sense at all.

The first is normally driven by the need of a new leader to stamp their authority, to have things working “their way” and to make people realise that there is a new regime in place. Now this “may” be true, but other than make things work from their perspective, will it really drive any meaningful shift in performance? The counter argument is that it probably won’t hurt – but then is that really a meaningful basis for any management intervention?

The second is where we enter the territories of madness….if you want something to happen that isn’t happening, if people aren’t talking, if there isn’t cross selling, if you don’t have the lead generation that you want. A structural change is not going to make these things happen. Nor will it get you liked, loved or adored.  A behavioural change, on the other hand, just might. People don’t do things differently because they’re organised in a different way, they do it because they understand things in a different way – they change their hearts and heads, not their seat.

As for three, there are the rare occasions when people are sat around in a business not doing anything. But in most cases, they’re carrying out the tasks that the organisation has historically deemed necessary. Wholesale structural changes to take out cost rarely work, without a subsequent change to the business operation or model. And if you’ve got an individual who is a problem? Deal with them, not the poor suckers around them.

A few years ago, I was talking to a successful leader of a business area who was referring to a competitor announcing another restructure. “I don’t think we’ve structurally changed things since the 70s” they told me. When I asked them how they’d accommodated all the changes and developments in the world and in their industry they answered, “we talk about it, work out what we need to do and get on with it”.

Hard to put it simpler than that.

Technology, analytics, data, life – start from the beginning

I’ve just got back from the HRTechFest in Washington. Last time I went to one of these, I wrote this about Technology being HR’s biggest asset. I still think it is – so take a look.

This time, I was struck this time about the commonality of a lot of the themes that people were talking about inside and outside of the sessions. I heard a lot about:

Transparency – the increasing expectation from employees that they can see the workings of an organisation beyond their own personal experience. Whether that is of compensation, decision-making structures, or promotion opportunities – to name but a few.
Customisation – no single person is the same and we therefore need to create employee experiences that recognise the different choices that individual employees will want to take at different stages of their lives and careers.
Experimentation – we need to be more comfortable with being less perfect and in trying things out to see how and if they work. Whether it is data, technology or traditional interventions, we need to love and embrace the pilot.
Analysis – data, data everywhere….and we need to start using it sensibly. Almost every presentation or conversation I had talked about the data underpinning decisions, but used it in a practical and sensible way – not for show, but for real, purposeful thinking.

But the biggest thing that I realised was that the companies talking about this were drawn from right across the board. The likes of Twitter and Hulu and Google and Hootsuite were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barclays, Cimpress, NBC and health and education providers.

The challenges and themes were the same, but the routes to the mountains were different. And I think this is a factor that we sometimes overlook. If you want to develop transparency of compensation, then you’re going to take a different route in a company which has been in existence for less than 10 years and has a couple of hundred of employee to one that has thousands of employees and a lot with a length of tenure two or three times longer than the other company.

Our skill is in understanding our organisational starting place and identifying the path to take. That’s a significant part of what we bring to the table. Sometimes change is fast, sometimes change is slow. Sometimes things aren’t achievable right now because a whole load of other things need to be done first. And that’s ok.

We all need to aspire to be better, we all want our organisations to change and develop, to create better working environments for our employees and better workplaces for society. To do that we need to constantly take a step forward from the place that we started. Recognising the challenge is as important as recognising the goal. That way, we make long-term sustainable change. The sort that really, really makes a difference.