Beating Bias, Grounding Groupthink.

Posted by jlubans on March 31, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


I recently wrote about why some groups are smarter than others, at least in a laboratory setting.
Researchers have come up with predictors of group success or failure; something called Factor C, with its three measures:
participant emotional or social IQ;
the number of engaged participants;
and, interestingly, the number of women on the team.
Those same elements influence the inevitable biases to be found in groups. What do I mean by bias? It’s that very human tendency to go with an emotional rather than a factually objective perspective. Bias insinuates; a subtle, convivial partner to the do-nothing of “happy talk.” Some biases are so common they have names; here are four: Confirmation Bias, Post-Decision Rationalization, Status-Quo Bias, and the Bandwagon Effect. I have seen all of these in action; they’ve influenced me. Likewise, I’ve seen groups fall short of their best because of an irrational predisposition.
1. Confirmation Bias
This happens when I listen only to people who agree with me. If someone else believes what I believe, then that adds certainty and confidence to my view. If someone disagrees with my worldview, then I dismiss that opinion – What does that person know! I might make it personal; you are either with me or against me.
Some say that the most pathological aspect of confirmation bias is how it influences a group’s end position. Likeminded, moderate people, when mixed in a group containing more than one extreme view will tend to adopt the extreme view. I know only a few people who have the ability to remain open-minded –to think for themselves and keep their predilection at bay – and make a decision that most closely meets what they believe is the best way. I know many people who are pretty set in their ways – indeed their behavior is predictable when confronted with change. It is as if they willingly suspend their critical thinking skills in favor of a preconceived notion.
2. Post-Decision Rationalization
Having made a bad decision, I resist owning up to the mistake and changing direction. A personal example: I have always had a strong preference for Apple computers but there was a spell when Apple nearly failed – their products were no longer cutting edge and they lost the educational market to PCs. I decided to buy Apples for the organization in spite of PCs being competitive and at the time probably more reliable. I should have been more open to PCs. Had I listed out the pros and cons and maybe looked at costs/benefits I might have had a more tenable position to explain why I did what I did.
3. Status-Quo Bias
If we are apprehensive about change, it is easy for us to reason that if something “ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” We prefer to leave things the way they are rather than look for how to improve. I discovered that a different mantra helped us get past resistance: “If it ain’t broke, break it.”
4. Bandwagon Effect
If everyone is doing it, I want to do it too. The bandwagon effect is huge in my line of work, sometimes for the good, often for the not so good. Instead of blindly copying what the fellow down the road has, we should do a rigorous analysis of our own needs and decide whether what the other guy has even works like it is supposed to and whether it will it help us. Just because X, Y and Z organizations are doing it is no guarantee that it will work in your organization. But, then that is the way of fads, of bandwagons. We surrender our objective appraisal to opinion and emotion.
So, how do we keep bias under control? The predictors of group success – those three measures mentioned above – are a good start for countering bias in-group decision making.
An unlikely source, the honeybee also suggests ways to stop bias. Research reveals that bees make good decisions when choosing a new location for a nest. Eighty percent of the time the bees choose the best site, an uncanny batting average of .800. Bee decision-making – democracy – gives us insights about preventing bias.
First, bees have a shared interest in and mutual respect for choosing the next nest. It is a life or death decision.
Second, there is no dominant leader. “Yes” men and “Nodders” need a boss to respond to. Absent the dominant leader, the group is free to debate openly and substantively. In this egalitarian group, there is no automatic deference to the gray heads in the hive or toward the alleged experts. Bee democracy is all about debate among well informed equals.
Third, bees seek diverse solutions. Everyone may “speak” his or her mind but everyone listens for the most convincing idea. It is through this respectful exchange that the group identifies a diverse set of options, freely shares the information among participants and considers and chooses the best option.
Bees may have limited social and emotional IQ but they do appear to respect other views; there’s no excluding a good idea because of a hidden agenda or a personal antipathy.
When we operate the way the bees do – an urgent decision to be made, mutual respect, open debate on different options among many engaged participants – bias cannot get a foot in the door.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Hawk, the Kite, and the Pigeons”*

Posted by jlubans on March 27, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Revolutionary “Pigeons” Pulling Down King George III

“THE PIGEONS, terrified by the appearance of a Kite, called upon the Hawk to defend them. He at once consented. When they had admitted him into the cote, they found that he made more havoc and slew a larger number of them in one day than the Kite could pounce upon in a whole year.”

“Avoid a remedy that is worse than the disease.”

And from 1775, a moral appearing in ÆSOP'S FABLES, translated by Samuel Croxall, D. D. London. The 10th edition, it suggests a strong interest in Croxall’s translation of Aesop.**

“What can this fable be applied to but the exceeding blindness and stupidity of that part of mankind who wantonly and foolishly trust their native rights of liberty without good security? …. The truth is, we ought not to incur the possibility of being deceived in so important a matter as this: an unlimited power should not be trusted in the hands of any one who is not endued with a perfection more than human.

Mr. Croxall, writing just before America’s break with King George III, (over the “native rights of liberty”) did not miss the point of this fable. If liberty is worth having, making concessions to “the (presumed) lesser of two evils” is to repeat the pigeons’ self-destructing folly. Today’s news of a centuries-old enemy providing “free” military assistance to a hapless "former" foe and another country’s “freeing” a part of a sovereign state with grand promises to those “liberated” suggest that Aesop’s insights are as relevant today as they were in 550BC.

**A reprint from 1814 keeps Croxall’s text, drops his name and says the book was “Printed at the Chiswick Press, BY C. WHITTINGHAM.” You can see it here.

Leading from the Middle News. June, 2015 will be the five-year anniversary of Leading from the Middle. Get a copy before it goes out of print!

Today’s Leading from the Middle Library: Singapore Management University, Li Ka Shing Library.

© 2015 John Lubans

Loss & Grief

Posted by jlubans on March 24, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)


I’m about a third of the way through Jerry D. Campbell’s, “Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One.”
Jerry, friend and former colleague, expresses in lucid and unabashedly honest words what most of us only feel when coping with loss, in his case the unexpected death of his wife, LaVeta Dea Sinclair Campbell, or “Veta”, as she was known by me and hundreds of friends in Texas, Colorado, North Carolina and California.
While Jerry’s book is about his personal grief, he writes for anyone grieving; the cause need not be death. What Jerry has to say applies as well to divorce or breaking-up, and in the work place, to being fired, pink-slipped. Some claim that getting sacked is among the most wrenching of human experiences – right up there with divorce – and that there’s a subsequent grieving process - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Ignored or stuck in denial, our grief can lead to years of self-doubt, anger, and depression and to a lack of resolution – the same plaintive country and western tune played over and over (“A Sad Song Don’t Care Whose Heart It Breaks” – Carl Jackson). Unresolved, it may never be possible to arrive at a balanced and objective review of what happened.*
Jerry’s disciplined approach for managing grief would be of help to anyone reeling and humiliated from “being thrown under the bus”.
In particular, Jerry’s thoughts on loneliness (pages 51-53) resonated for me. “I was alone for the first time in my almost sixty-five years.” No stranger to solitude – I knew Jerry to solo in the desert for a week, reflecting and thinking – but an empty house, full of memories of Veta, was despondently different from returning home to Veta.
Jerry quotes from Harvey Potthoff’s book, “Loneliness: Understanding and Dealing with It”, “… what that loneliness comes to mean to us is partly our own decision.” Our own decision.
As I read this I understood that trying simply to forget, to block out what happened is not enough.
Again, Potthoff:
“What has been done has been done. The experiences we have had with parents and family, the fortunate and unfortunate relationships we have experienced, the successes and failures … the joys and sorrows we have known, are in the lived record and cannot be changed.”
And most keenly: “What can be changed is the meaning these events and experiences have for us.”
Do we dwell for a lifetime on a perceived injustice or do we take what we can from the sadness and “go to new chapters of life”?
What I’ve taken so far from Jerry’s book, is the very real necessity of resolving what’s happened – no, not forgetting – and taking the experience – however petty, shabby, and sad – and building on it. Giving into self pity is OK – unavoidable, probably - for the first few days or weeks, but after that, do yourself a favor: seek to take charge of your life and pick up the pieces from where you last left off. You should begin to realize and understand that what happened “cannot be changed”. What will you do instead of feeling sorry for yourself? What is the good that can come from this bad? It’s there; don’t close the door on it.
No easy task. Jerry’s experience gives us insights into grieving and its phases towards ending and then beginning.

*NOTE: In Greek mythology, Penthus or Penthos was “the spirit (daimon) of grief, mourning and lamentation”. It is believed that he gives the most grief to those who overdo grieving; those who cannot let go of their loss.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Universidad de Navarra Pamplona. España

© 2015 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE WOLF AND THE KID”*

Posted by jlubans on March 20, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Milo Winter, 1919.

“There was once a little Kid whose growing horns made him think he was a grown-up Billy Goat and able to take care of himself. So one evening when the flock started home from the pasture and his mother called, the Kid paid no heed and kept right on nibbling the tender grass. A little later when he lifted his head, the flock was gone.
He was all alone. The sun was sinking. Long shadows came creeping over the ground. A chilly little wind came creeping with them making scary noises in the grass. The Kid shivered as he thought of the terrible Wolf. Then he started wildly over the field, bleating for his mother. But not half-way, near a clump of trees, there was the Wolf!
The Kid knew there was little hope for him.
‘Please, Mr. Wolf,’ he said trembling, ‘I know you are going to eat me. But first please pipe me a tune, for I want to dance and be merry as long as I can.’
The Wolf liked the idea of a little music before eating, so he struck up a merry tune and the Kid leaped and frisked gaily.
Meanwhile, the flock was moving slowly homeward. In the still evening air the Wolf's piping carried far. The Shepherd Dogs pricked up their ears. They recognized the song the Wolf sings before a feast, and in a moment they were racing back to the pasture. The Wolf's song ended suddenly, and as he ran, with the Dogs at his heels, he called himself a fool for turning piper to please a Kid, when he should have stuck to his butcher's trade.”

“Do not let anything turn you from your purpose.”

While more a fairy tale than a fable in length and style, there’s no denying the kid puts one over on the wolf.
In the workplace, we can make the wolf’s mistake of becoming distracted to the point of negligence – the apt cliché of “taking one’s eye off the ball” - and wind up losing any gain. I encountered this with implementing organizational reforms. I’d make headway in one unit only to be distracted by the intractability of another. Upon reflection, it would have been better for me to focus solely on those units amenable to change. It was a waste of time to try to persuade - to “play my pipe” - those in opposition. Indeed the noise of my playing/pleading/cajoling drew others opposed to change. Instead, the undistracted success of the few open to change, would have helped in the long run to bring along the naysayers.

*Source: Aesop for Children (translator not identified). Illustrations by Milo Winter (1886-1956). Chicago: 
Rand McNally & Company, 1919. Available online at Project Gutenberg.

© 2015 John Lubans

Good Teams: What’s the Secret?

Posted by jlubans on March 17, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption. Bridging the gap.

It’s an eternal question for me, why some teams do well and others fail. Is it luck or circumstance, personality, leadership, or urgency? All of these, none of these? Some of my work teams would take off and soar far above others . I try to explain this phenomenon in my classes by exploring the team theory espoused by Katzenbach and Smith, by discussing Tuckman’s “form, storm, norm, perform” and by introducing the students to Kurt Lewin’s studies on democratic leadership of groups.
And, I interweave the notion of leaderless teams, the idea that shared leadership can help a team realize its potential.
Still, it seems that teams fail much more easily than succeed.
Recently, there’s new research that claims to have found the lodestone for what makes a good team, something called “Factor C” or “collective intelligence”. “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others” – an article I will assign to my students - explains the new theory.
“C” is a predictor of group failure or success and includes three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team. Here’s an explanatory quote:
“(T)he smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.
“First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.
Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states ….
Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. … This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mindreading” than men.”

Now, keep in mind, C or collective intelligence is a predictor of team success on group tasks performed in a laboratory setting. Six hundred and ninety seven participants (N=697) were randomly assigned into teams of 2 to 5 people. The tasks to be “solved” included brainstorming on the uses of a brick;
Caption: A RAPM test question.
answering Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices questions (depicted); dealing with the complexity of a disciplinary cases study, and planning a group shopping expedition, along with a couple other tasks. Statistically, the groups with the highest collective intelligence – the highest C score - performed best of all.
A big plus for this research, at least in my book, is that these teams had to achieve quantifiable results – the research was more about achieving goals than it was about how happy team members were with each other. I emphasize this because sometimes we think that a happy team is a productive team. That is rarely the case. I recall an organization that was convinced its teams were the best because team members felt good about being on teams – no productivity figures were kept. It was as if expecting improved results – faster, better, more innovation and higher production – were repulsive concepts. For me, an effective team has to improve on what it does – group feelings may be important but not as important as group productivity.
As expected, some believe C is “mumbo-jumbo” and has little to do with real world teams, teams that have to do real work. One Fortune 500 consultant says all that good teams need is “checking-in”, a quick process to clear the decks of hidden agenda, bad vibes, etc. Each member’s revealing what’s “eating his lunch”, results in increased honesty and respect among participants; from there good work can be done. Then there are the die-hard Myers–Briggs Type Indicator test proponents. Apparently, this vastly popular personality test is used by organization to assemble teams, supposedly well-balanced and diverse teams which anecdotally are better than teams selected on participant IQ or other criteria.
So far, the research on C appears to offer us some useful insights into teamwork, why some team get the job done while others spin their wheels.

NOTE: Sarah Brown’s intriguing chapter “The biology of librarian leadership” in the book, “Leading the 21st-century academic library : successful strategies for envisioning and realizing preferred futures” (edited by Bradford Lee Eden and published by Rowman & Littlefield, in 2015) cites Leading from the Middle several times.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “The Ass, the Cock, and the Lion”*

Posted by jlubans on March 13, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Francis Barlow, 1687, with the ass’ fate foretold.

“AN ASS and a Cock were in a straw-yard together when a Lion, desperate from hunger, approached the spot. He was about to spring upon the Ass, when the Cock (to the sound of whose voice the Lion, it is said, has a singular aversion) crowed loudly, and the Lion fled away as fast as he could. The Ass, observing his trepidation at the mere crowing of a Cock summoned courage to attack him, and galloped after him for that purpose. He had run no long distance, when the Lion, turning about, seized him and tore him to pieces.”

“False confidence often leads into danger.”
Or as Sir Roger L'Estrange has it: “The Force of Unaccountable Aversions, is Insuperable. The Fool that is Wise and Brave only in his Own Conceit, runs on without Fear or Wit; but Noise does no Bus'ness.”

And so it is at work. Aesop touches on one of the biggest mistakes an individual or team can make: An overweening optimism.
We humans are just as prone to “false confidence” as is the rooster. This is but one of the biases blighting group work. Like-minded people are especially vulnerable to “group-think” – the failure to hear or respect contrarian views against a dominant opinion, regardless what the data may be showing.
I saw this up close and personal multiple times when I presented findings about student use of the Internet to library groups in the late 90s and early 2000s. As the users’ independent use of e-resources rapidly grew, library services developed for a print-only world dwindled. My research may have been heard but it was not listened to – a few huffed there was no need to innovate or to adapt services - but my predictions pretty much came to be. Eventually, due to pressure from outside, including from with-it library users, waves of emulation - started by a few genuine innovations - soon began to ripple across library-land.
Groupthink can and often does - when the stakes are truly high - propel us toward disaster. Since Aesop’s animals can talk, why does the rooster not warn the ass about his false assumption?
“Come back, you dumb ass! It’s my crowing, not your braying!”
Every group needs at least a few members ready to speak up when over-confidence rears its supercilious head.

*Source: AESOP’S FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Leading from the Middle Library: Swinburne University Library,
Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

“Recess Is Back!”

Posted by jlubans on March 10, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A 1920s zip line. Look Ma! No harness!

The “zip line” or “zip wire” is approaching 100 years. It’s been clumsily called the “Inclined Strong” and more thrillingly, the “Death Slide.”
Once a carnival rides, it’s now a mainstay event in outdoor ropes courses and eco-tourism. The zip line, at least in adventure learning, is often a concluding event. Participants come, Tarzan-like, screaming down a long cable, snugly harnessed and carabineered. Skimming over treetops, gorges, and what not, the wide-eyed zip liner lands gently on a platform among welcoming teammates.
It’s a fun ride for all but the acrophobic. As such, it can be an effective reward for getting through a day of harrowing high ropes events, ones with a much higher perceived risk.
Increasingly, the zip line is used as a stand alone attraction in its own right, akin to running the rapids in an inflated rubber raft, not much more challenging than a state fair tea cup ride. Indeed some vendors combine the two, zip lining and rubber rafting.

Caption: Team crossing.

I think it is important to discriminate between the zip line as the concluding event of a rigorous high ropes – in which one faces personal and team challenge from start to finish – and the solo zip line adventure featured in the ad, “Recess is back!” While much of what goes on in high ropes is individual – you confront your limitations and fears - it is also a shared experience. Your teammates see you and encourage you. You encourage them through thick and thin. Only a few participants can scamper across every event and then come back for more. Most of us have to constantly abate our fear of falling, regardless of how well strapped in we may be. We come to realize - as our knees tremble - that getting to the other side is going to take more finesse than muscle. (You’ve seen teammates drop off the cable and dangle, and then struggle to get back on the line). We may even open up to advice or take hold of a stretched-out hand.
So, I think using the zip line – the highest, the longest, and the fastest - as a symbol for a high ropes course sends the wrong message. It suggests that high ropes event are easy, that gravity does all the work. It’s like the rubber raft, bouncing around in the white water with its passengers, under the complete control of the guy with the oars in the back.
In high ropes your conquest of your personal fear, your team’s efforts to help each other make it through, has little to do with gravity (if anything the group is trying to cheat gravity.)
High ropes are rigorous – exhausting and exhilarating – and when a skilled facilitator debriefs each event, the individual and team lessons can be powerful, long lasting and ready for transfer to one’s work and life.


@Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Abstemius' “A Swallow and a Spider”

Posted by jlubans on March 06, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: By Taigaku, Swallow and Spider, 1830-44. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“A Spider that observ'd a Swallow catching of Flies, fell immediately to work upon a Net to catch Swallows, for she look't upon't as an Encroachment upon her Right: But the Birds, without any Difficulty, brake through the Work, and flew away with the very Net it self. Well, says the Spider, Bird-catching is none of my Talent I perceive; and so she return'd to her old Trade of catching Flies again.”
“A Wise Man will not Undertake any thing without Means answerable to the End.”

Or, to quote La Fontaine’s “them’s that’s got, gets” moral:
“Two tables hath our Maker set
For all that in this world are met.
To seats around the first
The skilful, vigilant, and strong are beckon'd:
Their hunger and their thirst
The rest must quell with leavings at the second.”

So, is this story then about inept planning or is it about a society where everyone, rightly, knows his or her place? Abstemius gives the swallow a second chance. Seeing the failure of her net, she decides, like the cobbler, “to stick to (her) last.”
In La Fontaine’s version, the swallow’s chicks devour the in-over-her-head spider.
I’ll take Abstemius; mistakes made striving to excel (that don’t kill us) make us better or more contented at what we do.

*Source: Abstemius' Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange.

Friday’s Leading from the Middle Library: Universität St. Gallen Library. St. Gallen, Switzerland

@2015 Copyright John Lubans

The Good Soldier

Posted by jlubans on March 03, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: One of several hundred illustrations by Josef Lada. In this scene, Švejk and Oberleutnant Lukáš and the Colonel’s stolen dog that earns both of them a trip to the front lines.

I’ve been re-reading (as is my custom) The Adventures Of Švejk, the comic (and literary) masterpiece by Jaroslav Hašek, anarchist and highly influential Czech writer.
The story tells of Josef Švejk, an infantryman (and former seller of stolen dogs) and his First World War mis-adventures. Švejk is not an insubordinate, yet he gets the better of each situation in which he finds himself, escaping being hung or shot, simply by agreeing with his accusers. When a choleric official calls him an idiot for walking in the opposite direction to which Švejk’s regiment is marching, he replies, innocently, “Humbly report, sir, Yes, I am an idiot.” And then he launches into page-long explanatory (and often bawdy) anecdotes – from an apparent eidetic memory - that may or may not have anything to do with the current circumstance. This invariably drives the questioner to distraction and finally exasperation – roaring, "You bastard, get the hell out of here!"
Literary theorists term Švejk an “Everyman.” I am not so sure. Each of us is a mosaic made up of many tiles, some with which we are born along with many others acquired along the way. For me, Švejk is Švejk; not Sancho Panza, nor Gargantua or any other picaro. Just Josef Švejk, infantryman. And that’s a tribute to the author’s genius. In the book’s 750 pages of dark humor and satire, Hašek makes a strong case against man’s killing man. He lampoons each and every of the petty reasons we use to glorify war.
So, what does Švejk have to do with the workplace?
Unlike Sancho Panza, he lacks a foil like the certifiably quixotic Don. But,
when I read his interactions with his two bosses, Oberleutnant Lukáš and 2nd Lieutenant Dub, I begin to see an interesting type of follower. Lukáš is a company commander, but he shows democratic tendencies. Whatever the SNAFU Švejk gets him into, the lieutenant shows a kindness rarely seen among any of the other mega-arrogant and imperious officers.
On the other side is a classic Prussian autocrat, 2nd Lieutenant Dub. He can’t resist imposing himself (and his rules book) on subordinates, nit-picking at every behavior. His ultimate hope is to catch Švejk in a mutinous act. He warns every soldier, “You don’t know me. You don’t want to know me!” Impotent and officious, Lt. Dub is a pathological portrait of an officio-crat.
What type of follower is Svejk? Star? Sheep? Yes man? I’d have to say he is somewhere between an Alienated Follower (independent thinking and actively, if clandestinely, opposed to the leadership) and a Survivor, keeping his head down. As I think about it, he is much more the alienated follower than the latter. He also reminds me of the Lovable Fools I have known in my careen, one indeed was a Czech! Now I understand just what he was doing when he would knock on my door and guilelessly offer up stories and ideas for the organization. I hope my listening was more like that of Lukáš than Dub.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Skövde Library
Skövde, SE 54128 Sweden

@Copyright John Lubans 2015