Assumption Bias restricts the possibility of change for both the leader and followers. It acts like a steel safe, locking in a static belief system and locking out the possible alternatives.
The greater the power leaders have, the more vulnerable they are to assumption bias because their coworkers are unlikely to challenge them.
Here are three forms of assumption bias:
- Cognitive dissonance–When you have two conflicting beliefs and to reduce the internal tension/conflict you alter one belief. The stronger the conflict, the greater the rationality employed.
- Ego involvement–When you’re so invested in a position (in part because of group membership & your own emotional commitment) that you’re unlikely to be rethink or revise it.
- Overconfidence effect–When your subjective confidence in your judgments is reliably greater than your objective accuracy.
Assumption Bias at Work
A value-added reseller of a software company grew and prospered until one point it began to lose money each month. This surprised the senior team because their revenues had continued to grow with greater and greater software sales. Each time they sold software, they also sold maintenance and professional services. The company was locked into an assumption that began the day they open their doors: they sell software. Because this company saw itself as a software reseller and not a professional services firm, they managed the business around a software sales matrix and not the key performance indicators of a professional service firm. CO2 Partners worked with this company to improve its performance, but first we had to expose and eliminate longstanding assumption bias. While the full nature of their business seems obvious now, it wasn’t at the time for the senior team, who had invested a lot of time, work, and ego in getting the company off the ground. They had to revise their vision of themselves and their company.
When you are moving through the change process, you will usually run headfirst into assumption bias–whether you’re an outsider or an insider. You may think that good ideas should be accepted and implemented quickly and easily. And they should, but that’s not usually how the script plays out. People don’t always act the way we expect or hope they will. They make assumptions and hold onto them–even in the face of superior logic.
Uprooting faulty assumptions requires not only superior logic, but also an examination of the bias or biases that led to the assumption. Be aware of the types of assumption bias–cognitive dissonance, ego involvement, and the overconfidence effect. Use this knowledge to help persuade stakeholders to see the situation in a more objective light.