By Tanner Corbridge (@TannerCorbridge), partner for Partners In Leadership who works with business leaders to create greater workplace accountability and facilitates enterprise-wide culture change.
I was recently involved in leading a team of professionals from our organization into one of the busiest hospitals in America. Our primary task was to better understand why patient satisfaction scores weren't moving more quickly in a positive direction.
Patient satisfaction scores carry massive importance in today's hospital environment as they determine government reimbursement rates.
Our team's mission for the day: interview 45 frontline employees from across every major functional area within the hospital and then report our findings to the hospital's executive team.
As we began our interviews a fascinating, albeit remarkably common phenomenon began to surface. Of the 45 interviewees 41 responded to our patient satisfaction question the exact same way. To a person, when asked why the scores weren't moving faster, the response was succinctly captured with one word: "staffing!" In other words, "We don't have enough headcount to get the job done for our patients."
When we met with the executive team to debrief our findings, they were dumbfounded by the consistency of the message. Their response was passionate, "Our staffing levels are higher than industry norms!" "You've got to be kidding me! Our nurse to patient ratios are 3rd highest in the state right now!"
We went on to explain to these leaders that the narrative had become so deeply entrenched that one nurse, when asked why she felt staffing was the biggest problem, responded by saying, "I don't know why. That's just what I always say when someone asks about our patient scores."
As we dug deeper it became clear that some departments, like housekeeping, which had 5 out of 5 respondents say "staffing is our issue," were actually significantly overstaffed!
How does that happen? How is it possible that the vast majority of frontline employees, in a massively complex organization, had adopted the exact same narrative?
It happens because of an unseen phenomenon known as Belief Bias. Belief Bias, simply defined, is the innate need that humans have to validate the beliefs they've already adopted. This tendency is powerful enough that individuals will willingly ignore a mountain of evidence that contradicts their belief, so they can continue to hold on to their chosen view of the world.
This is a wonderful tendency when healthy beliefs are being validated, but the results can be devastating when the wrong beliefs are distorting one's view of the world. That's the dilemma - as the wrong belief can become a destructive cancer that quietly grows while crippling organizational performance.
So here's the point: A similar phenomenon of a powerful, perhaps unlabeled, narrative is likely impacting behavior right now in your organization.
Your organization's phenomenon is likely affecting the way people think and act, all day long. It might be a broadly held belief that "our product portfolio isn't broad enough to produce our top line numbers." Or, it could be a belief that "we can't hit our sales number because management isn't developing our people well enough."
Whatever narrative exists, there are four important steps to combat this unseen force:
Step 1: Identify The Narrative
Step 1 requires humility. You won't get far without it. You'll need to honestly and transparently listen for the narrative that's being shared. This step won't take you long. Schedule 10 interviews with the frontlines. After your fourth interview you'll likely already have the narrative.
Step 2: Pull the Covers Off
This step requires courage on top of humility. It requires leaders to embark on a brutally honest awareness campaign, speaking openly and candidly about the existence of the narrative.
Step 3: Create a Compelling Case for Change
The price we individually and collectively incur for adopting the narrative needs to be communicated over and over again. In the case of the hospital, no one was working on what would truly improve patient satisfaction scores because virtually everyone believed the solution was out of their hands.
Step 4: Have the Organization Tell You What the New Narrative Should Be
Most people, when introduced to new intelligence, tend to act intelligently. Nowhere is this truer than when people become aware of the damage being caused by their adoption of a False Narrative and the liberation that follows when they start being guided by a productive narrative.
This is critical: Be open to the distinct possibility that the answer is somewhere in the middle! In other words, hidden within the narrative are elements of real feedback that need to be considered rather than discounted. Don't overlook the real possibility that the appropriate answer might consist of behavior change on the frontlines with meaningful adjustments or better communication coming from the leadership ranks.
Intentionally Evolve Your Narrative
As you listen carefully, you'll identify the narratives endemic in your organization and be better prepared to facilitate meaningful change. Be intentional about following each of these four steps and allow Belief Bias to start working in your favor, rather than against you.