Leaders! The disastrous Cognitive Bias that sank the Titanic

 

 

We all remember the opening scene of the movie ‘Titanic’. People are waving their hands to their loved ones, not knowing they will never see some of them alive again. Just watching it today still brings out my raw emotions. The giant had the nickname “unsinkable”. There is a rumor that Capt. Edward John Smith had said, “Even God himself couldn’t sink this ship”. Oh, but the ship did sink. Immediately, it was said that the iceberg caused the ship to sink but what sank the ship? It was believed by many that the ship is too good to sink. Studies indicate that we base the quality of a decision or behavior by its result, ignoring many extenuating factors that could eventually result in the success or failure of the action. The titanic carried 2,200 passengers but lost 1,200 precious souls. Despite the ship having hundreds and thousands of meat and edibles, it carried only 20 lifeboats, ignored 30 different ice warnings.

The belief that there is no chance of a disaster and it is better to risk the lives of these people with just these lifeboats and ignore all other signs and warnings is because of a cognitive quirk known as “outcome bias”. Outcome bias can make us increasingly risky but at the same time, make us rejoice in the outcome of this risk if it was a success. Leaders who take risks on various projects or physicians who make irrational decisions without weighing in the pros and cons of the consequences of their actions are leading themselves into an irrational and unethical state of affairs.

The employees may follow the leader assuming this individual can navigate through unusual and difficult circumstances unlike them and sometimes adhere to ‘groupthink’. The biggest and most famous example of groupthink is when John F. Kennedy, in 1960, decided to proceed with the plan of President Eisenhower to land in Cuba’s southern coast to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime. The spirit of camaraderie led his team to follow his decisions blindly; after all, he was the commander in chief. A leader always hopes for the best outcome for her project. If the leader has been successful in various other projects and has accumulated numerous years of experience, she may underestimate the risks involved in future projects. Overlooking facts, hoping for the best outcome is a catastrophic mistake made by many in the top management. These leaders are praised if the outcome was successful and criticized if the outcome was ineffective.

This is pertinent for government policymakers who implement various initiatives. Needless to say, it is true when it comes to sports too. A player is either criticized or praised for the result but not for the effort and the performance she put in the game. If the Titanic had not sunk or the outcome of the maiden voyage was successful, no one would have mentioned the negligence of the people or the inferior quality of steel used for the Titanic. Whether you are a CEO, project manager, policymaker, or physician, you must factor in the risks involved in a project or a case. Let the successful outcome not lure you into another project without weighing in the risks involved in it. Let us all focus on the process, not the outcome, and free our minds from this skewed irrational haven of hope.

Hamna Siddique MS, CCII, CLC is a coach specializing in career, business, and leadership coaching. Website: www.hamnasiddique.com, Email: hamnasiddique@goldbridge.llc. ©2020 Goldbridge Coaching LLC | All Rights Reserved |    

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