Have you noticed how the loudest people in a room are almost never the smartest?

Psychology has a name for this phenomenon: the Dunning-Kruger effect. It states that ignorance and confidence often go together, while the truly skilled tend to suffer from self-doubt. Even more annoyingly, a boatload of science shows that humans are depressingly likely to be taken in by the charm and bloviating of the overconfident.

Having the boss bedazzled by a slick presentation when there's a better, if quieter, idea on offer is incredibly aggravating for smart people. But it's also hugely costly for businesses. All of which is depressingly obvious. What's harder to understand is what to do about it.

Sadly, we humans can't entirely rip out the biases that come pre-wired into our brains, but as Khalil Smith of the NeuroLeadership Institute explained on Strategy + Business recently, it is possible to learn to work around them. Here are his suggestions:

1. Set up "if-then" plans.

No one goes into a meeting planning on being bamboozled by charming blowhards. Instead, our best intentions are often steamrollered by charisma in the moment. The key to avoiding this fate is to plan ahead and make it as simple as possible for your buggy brain to remain keenly focused on actual competence.

"Formulate 'if-then' plans, which help the anterior cingulate cortex -- a brain region that allows us to detect errors and flag conflicting information -- find differences between our actual behavior and our preferred behavior," suggests Smith. "For example, you can say to yourself: 'If I catch myself agreeing with everything a dominant, charismatic person is saying in a meeting, then I will privately ask a third person (not the presenter or the loudest person) to repeat the information, shortly after the meeting, to see if I still agree.'"

2. Get it in writing.

Recently Jeff Bezos made headlines for his insistence that meeting participants prepare by crafting six-page narrative memos. BS, the Amazon CEO insists, is way harder in writing. He's on to something, according to Smith.

"Instruct employees to get in the habit of laying out, in writing, the precise steps that led to a given decision being made. You also can write out the process for your own decision making," he recommends. "Narratives in the form of 'We decided X, which led us to conclude Y, which is why we're going with strategy Z' bring a certain transparency and clarity to the decision-making process and serve as a record that can be referenced later to evaluate which aspects of the process worked and which didn't."

3. Incentivize awareness of bias.

As in any other area of business and life, you get more of what you reward people for. Therefore, "managers should reward employees who detect flaws in their thinking and correct course," insists Smith. For instance, "at the NeuroLeadership Institute, we have a 'mistake of the month' section in our monthly work-in-progress meetings to help model and celebrate this kind of admission."

4. Go slower.

Sometimes decisions simply must be made quickly, but whenever you can, Smith recommends setting up "buffers" between when you receive information and when you act on it.

"For example, before a big decision is officially made, everyone involved should be encouraged to spend ten minutes relaxing or going for a walk before reconvening one last time to discuss any potential issues that haven't yet come up. This is a way of 'cooling off' and making sure things have been thought through calmly," he explains. "Another way to accomplish this is to engage in a 'pre-mortem' -- imagining a given decision went poorly and then working backward to try to understand why." (Google also recommends this practice.)

5. Disconnect the information from the human.

All of us harbor unconscious biases. That's why you should always give your brain as few opportunities to exercise them as possible.  "In the 1970s and 1980s, top orchestras instituted a blind selection process in which the identity of applicants was concealed from the hiring committee, often by literally hiding the player behind a screen while he or she performed. As a result, the number of female musicians in the top five U.S. symphony orchestras rose from five percent in 1970 to more than 25 percent in 1996," Smith offers as an example.

How can you apply that same principle in a business setting? Remove the human face from information as often as possible. "If you're brainstorming, have everyone write down their ideas on index cards or on shared documents, then review the ideas anonymously," for example, or strip the name and any gender-indicating details off resumes you're reviewing.

Smith offers much more detail on the science of why our brains are so likely to fall for false expertise in the long article. Check it out for a deeper dive.

Published on: May 8, 2018
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