The Perils of Unchecked Power

Peacock Crop. By Steve Wilde =
Peacock Crop. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilde.

Hubris is a curse that causes great people to fail.  If you want to become exceptional, you must see this problem coming and protect yourself from its ravaging effects. And if you want to help others to be great, you must speak truth to power as an act of civic duty.

It comes by many names and appears in many fields.  For history buffs this would be Adolf Hitler’s “victory disease” when, after a string of victories, he recklessly chose to invade Russia.  It’s the tale of Oedipus Rex who accidentally destroys himself by arrogantly trying to out-smart the gods.  Shakespeare’s King Lear divides his realm based on flattery and ignores sincere emotions. The problem is timeless and cuts across cultures.  It’s an eternal human problem which remains unsolved.

So of course, now is the time for neuroscientists and journalists to see if they can figure it out.

In an article at the Atlantic.com from July 2017, Jerry Useem asks whether power causes brain damage.  The correct answer is, no it does not.  But it gets close.

Useem references the work of a neuroscientist named Sukhvinder Obhi from McMaster University who did research on neural pathways responsible for “mirroring.”  Mirroring is what happens when we observe the behaviour of others, such as the squeezing of a rubber ball.  Mirroring activates those parts of the brain that we would engage if we ourselves were squeezing a ball.  Obhi found that people with power had a low-functioning mirroring process. Those with less power were otherwise normal.

I’m moderately skeptical about this research because I think that people with personality disorders often self-select into positions of power. It might be that the context of power causes people to become unsympathetic. But it might also be that the unsympathetic are more likely to achieve power. We would need to disentangle multiple causes of the problem, and some research has attempted to look at just that.  The findings are mixed and contradictory.

In one of the studies advanced by Useem, the researchers attempt to identify a specific “hubris syndrome.”  That study is entitled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?  A Study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers Over the Last 100 Years.”  By David Owen and Jonathan Davidson.  Brain, Volume 132, May 2009, pp 1396-1406.

Owen and Davidson propose 14 clinical features that identify hubris syndrome.  However, their paper is mostly a circular exercise in categorization, as the clinical features that they identify have overlaps with narcissism and antisocial disorders.  The authors also spend significant time trying to differentiate between hubris syndrome from those behaviours attributable to fully-fledged mental illness or the effects of substance abuse (be it prescription drugs, alcohol, or performance-enhancing drugs).  Owen and Davidson struggled to come up with a clear diagnosis of hubris in leadership because most of the big fish were either bonkers or tanked.

In an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley notes a variety of studies showing that power is a predictor of rude and law-breaking antics;

…whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles… always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time… Surveys of employees in 27 countries have revealed that wealthy individuals are more likely to say it’s acceptable to engage in unethical behavior, such as taking bribes or cheating on taxes. And recent research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montréal demonstrated that CEOs with MBAs are more likely than those without MBAs to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline.

… Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office.

And we know from other research that uncivil workplace behaviour causes disengagement by employees and the customers who see it.

Keltner names a number of reliable remedies to the corrupting influences of power.  “The first step is developing greater self-awareness.”  The simple act of identifying that power makes you feel energized and omnipotent – and at risk of rash behaviour – goes a long way towards self-improvement.  Keltner argues that when we recognize these feelings “…we’re less likely to make irrational decisions inspired by them.”  The same goes for negative feelings of frustration, that phenomenon when people say “don’t you know who I am?”  The cutting retort is, “Do you yourself know who you are?”  It’s always a thought worth considering.

Kelter proposes a variety of practices that remedy hubris. Mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, and generosity are all big players, and he offers specific tactics. Formal efforts like listening closely, expressing concern, delegating responsibility, and sending thank-you notes are not just courtesies.  They are proper vehicles for unlocking the powers of empathy and positive psychology in the mind of the leader.

The most shrewd move a leader can make is to cultivate self-awareness and a concern for others.  It’s not so much that the minions adore this performance.  It’s that a leader needs to become this kind of person on the inside in order to be great.

But it only works if they care.  So, for the ambitious, your orders are to care.

And if you don’t have power, make them care.

Mini-Me Recruiting: Always Funny, Always Uncomfortable

Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer) by Bit Boy
Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer).  Photo courtesy of Bit Boy.

Who hasn’t wanted to clone themselves, especially when deep into a project that leaves a weekend in tatters. Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame hilariously and awkwardly created Mini-Me as this right-hand man. While Mini-Me failed to carry out Dr. Evil’s plans for world domination, he succeeded in illustrating a major problem in human resources that needs more scrutiny than ever.  The actor Verne Troyer – who played Mini-Me – immortalized an uncomfortable concept.

The hiring of mini-me in organizations is a problem-behaviour caused by two cognitive fallacies.  One is the affinity bias, the liking of people similar to ourselves. The other is the exposure effect, where we like things that we have been merely exposed to. In the readings of cognitive fallacies it becomes clear that the majority of such fallacies are a variant of the “availability heuristic,” when we over-value thoughts that come to mind easily.  If we choose what’s comfortable, we reproduce our own status quo.

However, it’s usually the case that an employer needs a diverse team.  Even the most excellent leaders need people who have different strengths.  In an article at entrepreneur.com, George Deeb asserts;

“Maybe you don’t need a ‘glass half full’ optimist like yourself… Maybe you need a ‘glass half empty’ realist, who will bring a sense of caution to your investment decisions. Or, you may need a similar ‘A-Type Personality’ to lead your sales team efforts… But, maybe a ‘B-Type Personality’ may be a better fit to manage your more introverted team of technology developers. …Maybe what you really need is the opposite of yourself. You need your Anti-Me to help keep yourself organized, on plan and in check. It really comes down to what you see as your personal strengths and weaknesses, and filling in any voids in your skill-sets.” (Emphasis added)

Equity and Inclusion in Hiring Decisions

The most visible consequence of unconscious bias is that organizations hire and promote people in the same demographic category as the hiring manager, increasing the momentum behind historic privilege.  In an article in the Guardian in 2016, Matthew Jenkin notes that the context of a selection interview will have an outsized impact on who is chosen.  If the context is white and middle-class, candidates who are white and middle class will be favoured.

Bias goes beyond blockbuster items like race and social class. Hobbies, personal experiences, and how we dress can be factors too. If the leadership of an organization is “all of one type” it is a reliable sign that the leadership has lost all curiosity, has no self-doubt, and does not take evidence seriously.  The leadership is not reading the news, and if they are, they are only reading it in print.

This is not the mindset of leaders who will make an organization successful in the near future.  Yes, we must achieve indicators of diversity, but we must also foster receptiveness to new information, a curiosity about diverse ideas, and ways in which an individual can be excellent in a manner that might be considered weird.

Why Structured Interviews Matter

The professional association in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), released a paper in 2015 entitled A Head for Hiring: The Behavioural Science of Recruitment and Selection. It looked at, amongst other things, the role of unstructured interviews.  The authors found a study that fed research participants a combination of good evidential information, plus random irrelevant information from an unstructured interview.  The research subjects upgraded the importance of the random irrelevant information and discounted the good information.  “This can be seen as evidence of sense-making – our tendency to identify patterns or detect trends even when they are non-existent.”

It’s not just the interviewers who are at risk of making bad judgment calls. The CIPD paper identified cognitive fallacies in the mind of the interviewee that caused them to self-select away from promising job matches.  And walking into an unfamiliar environment, where they feel like an outsider, can cause job candidates to underperform because of the additional stress.  When people are using their brains, they are vulnerable to issues of cognitive load in which a complex environment exhausts their brain prior to facing decisions.  Those coming from a different context face disadvantage in an environment that might seem “normal” to the host.

Solutions in Diversity Hiring

What is the remedy for these problems?  For one, structured interviews are key, as they narrow the range of evidence to information that is relevant.  Also, we must actively seek contrary evidence; not taking things at face-value, and seeking information that is outside of what is familiar and comfortable.  There is also diversity representation.  Charles Hipps, CEO of e-recruitment company WCN, was quoted in the Guardian article and  “…suggests having team members from the particular group you are trying to attract present during the recruitment process – whether that’s meeting and greeting candidates or on the interview panel.”  Structure a diverse context and it will set a balanced comfort-level with reduced cognitive load.

Employers are also starting to get hard-core, using new tools to improve the selection process.  The Guardian article spoke with one company, Elevate, that “uses algorithms to score every candidate’s CV, previous work experience, skills and education, and assesses their suitability for a role. It then ranks candidates much like Google’s search results…”   Another company, Joinkoru, conducts validated pre-hire assessments which provide candidate scores that are less sensitive to the candidate’s similarity to current employees.  It is also feasible to do blind selection in the process of creating a shortlist, in a manner that obscures the name and sex of the candidate.

Not all of these tools are perfect, and indeed there are emerging risks that algorithms can carry-forward the historic bias of past human behaviours.  The rise of the racist robots is a concern.  We might not be creating cloned versions of ourselves (yet), but we are at serious risk of creating artificial intelligence which has flaws identical to our broader society.

And the technology can be expensive.  Doctor Evil is the only one selling it, and he’s going to charge you (pinky to mouth) one million dollars.

Spaghetti Principle Best Way to Change Minds

IMG_0580 by Brent (2)
IMG_0580.  Photo courtesy of Brent.

Does everything change when you touch it?  Yes for spaghetti: spaghetti changes when you touch it.  But what about people?  Do people change when you try to move them?  Sometimes.  Only sometimes.

One of my sub-skills is my ability to give one-on-one tutorials to colleagues to bring them to a higher level proficiency in Microsoft Excel.  Results vary, not because of talent, but more because of the person’s interest-level and their opportunity to apply the learning. I have done these tutorials enough times to know that there is a major concept that everyone needs to “get.”  So I offer the spaghetti metaphor.

When you move cooked spaghetti from the colander to the dining table, there are two ways that it gets there.  First, you move spaghetti out of the colander and onto the plate, changing the layout of the noodles in the process.  Then, after putting on the sauce, you move the entire plate to the dining table.  Transporting the plate does not change the layout of the noodles.  You can move the noodles or move the entire plate.  The distinction is that in some cases you change the configuration of the contents and in other cases you change their location but with the configuration left intact.

For those struggling with Excel, the issue is that if a rectangular cell has formulas in it, you must cut-and-paste the cell, drag-and-move the entire cell, or copy the formula inside the formula prompt to move a formula without altering it.  By contrast, if you copy-and-paste a cell or you use the autofill feature, your formula will automatically change so that all the cell references move accordingly.  You don’t have to worry about this if you’re not manipulating Excel right now.  As I mentioned, your ability to grasp this depends on your opportunity to apply the learning.

Enough math, let’s extend the concept to people’s opinions.  Are there cases where we attempt to move the logic in the minds of others?  Yes indeed.  Sometimes when you attempt to compel others to think of things differently, you get to change the configuration of their spaghetti-scramble of ideas.  But other times, you simply move the plate.  You get a person with the exact same opinions as before, they’re just in a different place, possibly more entrenched.

On Ozan Varol’s website, the rocket-scientist-turned-contrarian-author has some advice on how to change people’s minds.  Varol explains that people’s beliefs have an outsized impact on their grasp of the facts.  This role of beliefs drives a cognitive fallacy known as confirmation bias, the tendency for us to select facts that strengthen our beliefs and gloss-over those facts that are disruptive and uncomfortable.  The challenge is that we cannot use facts to drive changes-of-opinion, because it’s almost impossible to get into peoples’ grasp of “the facts” without attacking their intelligence.  So their defenses go up and they tell you where to go.  You know how this goes.

Varol recommends re-framing either-or debates around an alternate frame of reference.  His best example is when Columbians in the 1950s were grappling with the collapse of the Rojas dictatorship.  An entrenched mindset would blame the military for complicity in the Rojas regime, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, citizens offered an alternative narrative that “…it was the ‘presidential family’ and a few corrupt civilians close to Rojas – not military officers – who were responsible for the regime’s success.”  This narrative significantly reduced the risk of Columbia slipping into a military dictatorship.

As an academic, Varol presents papers at conferences with a subtle verbal shift.  He presents opinions somewhat detached from himself (“This paper argues…”) so that his ideas are lobbed into the public sphere to be thrashed about until others come to a more meaningful conclusion.  When he made this shift his ideas “took a life of their own” allowing him to view his own arguments with some objectivity.

You can do this too.  Varol encourages you to befriend those who disagree with you, expose yourself to environments where your opinions can be challenged, and presume that you will experience some discomfort.

Personally, I think the big deal is to get over yourself.  Or to be precise, that I need to get over myself. (See what I did there?)  If everyone other than me has opinions that are a random configuration of noodles, what are the odds that my own ideas are configured perfectly?

When it’s my turn to make spaghetti, I get the noodles into the plate, even them up, pour the sauce, and just get it all onto the table.  I have one kid that hates parmesan, and another that hates pepper.  Neither of them uses a spoon.  They handle the noodles as they see fit.  I let everyone enjoy what’s in front of them, while we talk about our day and our lives.  Hands off the noodles, because now’s the time to enjoy people.

Is This the Face of a CEO? It Should Be.

toothless
Toothless.  Photo courtesy of Chris Penny.

In order to become a CEO you need to “look like” a CEO.  And it’s not about wearing the right suit, climbing mountains, or having a cruel handshake.  No, the main indicator of whether you “seem like” the CEO type is that you have a complete absence of baby-face.

The research paper is entitled “A Corporate Beauty Contest” published in July 2016 in Management Science.  The research was entirely about men because status-quo data is already sexist to begin with.  The authors are John Graham, Campbell Harvey, and Manju Puri, all from Duke University.  There’s a good news article about it in the Wall Street Journal, but I’ll summarize it more briefly:

  • Survey participants can easily identify if two people with identical demographics are a CEO and a non-CEO.
  • People judge the CEOs of larger organizations as being “more CEO-ish” than the CEOs of smaller organizations based on the same facial features.
  • Those executive with more “mature” facial features were paid more than those with less-mature facial features. To clarify, even within the arbitrary demographic category of tall straight white able-bodied males with a bit of grey hair, there is an additional category of pay discrimination based on genetics: mature-face.
  • The authors found the findings surprising because it is assumed that CEOs are selected by corporate boards based on metrics and expertise.   The main driver of a successful executive search is metrics about the shape of the executive’s face.
  • Just in case you’re about to ask if super-effective people tend to develop a mature face over the years, hold your horses. “The look of competence isn’t correlated with superior [business] performance,” says co-author John Graham.  That is, discrimination based on looks can forgive corporate performance altogether.

We just throw certain types of people into high-level jobs regardless of how good they are at running our economy.

What to do?  First, thou shalt laugh.

Second, you should actively recruit people who don’t look the part but who have good formal indicators of competence.  In the book Moneyball, Billy Beane relied exclusively on metrics to decide which baseball players to recruit into the Oakland A’s.  He ended up with an team of weird-looking people.  One guy pitched under-hand, some people had a lot of moles and birthmarks, and there was a legend about that once you look at the numbers, overweight catchers tend to be selected because of their great batting performance.  We’re not selling blue-jeans.

If you could identify the most baby-faced darlings who had exceptional corporate performance, those might be your best candidates for CEO.  And their salaries would be a total bargain, too.

Can We Teach Robots to be Egalitarian?

Abstract robot head from different angles on black background. Artificial intelligence. 3D render.

Can we teach robots to be less biased than us?  Probably yes.  But only if we do this right.  Bias is mostly the product of mental shortcuts we make in our reasoning, and machines can only think clearly if we teach them to not make the same mental shortcuts.

There is an interesting article about employers’ best attempts at reducing bias in hiring algorithms.  Paul Burley, the CEO at Predictive Hire, describes his company’s efforts to identify and eliminate bias in the recruitment and selection of the best job applicants.  This work goes beyond eliminating applicant names from a conventional recruitment processes; this effort gets into predictive analytics to identify the best candidate.

Burley is particularly keen on identifying interview questions that drive bias (either direct or adverse-effect discrimination), and then eliminating those questions entirely.  While they do not use demographic information inside their algorithms, they do use demographic information outside of the algorithm, to test if any of their questions are causing a bias after-the-fact.

Using Workforce Analytics to Identify Invisible Bias

It sounds to me like his company is going about it the right way.  With bias, we don’t disproportionately “choose” white males to be the boss.  Rather, we assess what traits would normally indicate strong leadership, accidentally carry-forward historic stereotypes about strong leaders, and then inadvertently choose white males.  Plenty of people, including some women and visible minorities, accidentally advance this momentum.  That is because it’s the underlying thought patterns driving things, rather than deliberate and malevolent racism and sexism.  You can make one step forward by not being a jerk, but take two steps backward on something called cognitive bias.  And everyone does cognitive bias, not just the man.

Over at Better Humans, they have created a Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.  Personally, I have been trying to stay on top of cognitive bias since it was revealed to be a major driver of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the subsequent Great Recession.  Cognitive bias is overwhelming, and that’s illustrative of what the real problem is.  The world just gives us too much information to process, so we make shortcuts in our thinking to make sometimes-accurate judgments.  In the language of behavioral economics, prejudice is largely the advancing of skewed thinking based on cognitive bias shortcuts.

Information Overload – Are Machines Better Equipped Than Humans?

The big deal with big data is that machines are supposed to help us overcome the over-abundance of information.  Sure, we can find patterns and dig up nuggets that are buried in a mountain of data.  But if we are also making judgment calls using cognitive shortcuts because the human brain can’t handle the volume, there is the opportunity to use the machine to allow us to make judgments using all of the information.  We can create algorithms that are larger and more complex, bypassing the constraints of cognitive bias, and produce recommendations that are far less biased than those produced by humans.

We don’t entirely have the option of just turning the machine off.  Going off-grid just sends us back to biased decisions made by humans on gut instinct.  Think of who you know, and consider that not all luddites are champions of equality.  Right now, we are just getting past the first wave of machines imitating our own sexism and racism.  We now have the option of telling the machines to stop doing that, and then building new algorithms that meet our own purported standards of neutrality.

But this will happen if and only if we choose to name our biases, talk openly about them, measure them, make decisions to reverse them, and keep improving the algorithms such that everyone has a fair shot at the good jobs.  And even then, we still can’t trust robots to decide where to seat people on the bus.  We must forever be vigilant, and stay human.

I Like Your Style, You’re Just Like Me

Apostrophe Absent. By Michael Derr
Apostrophe Absent. Photo courtesy of Michael Derr.

Are you compatible with your organizational culture?  I sure hope not.  You need the freedom to break from the pack in order to pass along new information and adapt to disruptive change.

In the 2011 book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, the authors describe the way opinions and behaviors spread through social networks.  They describe a Three Degrees of Influence rule: we influence and are influenced by people three degrees removed from us, most of whom we do not even know.

You might know one hundred people, but those people may know another one hundred people (each), and so on.  This could result in a million people crowd-sourcing shared opinions.  You would pick up many opinions from this extended network.  The reverse is true as well.  You could spontaneously assert that we should have all better table manners, and a million people might change their behaviors.  Or maybe they’ll just talk about having better manners.

The implication is that you do not entirely experience independent thought.  You might control what time you arrive at work, what garments to wear to the office, and how you respond emotionally to what  your manager just said.  But the allocation of housework in your household, the social norms in appropriate dress, and the organizational culture of two-way conversation could all be things that have significant third-party influence.  You’re not exactly an autonomous hero in the workplace; you are a team-player in an environment where culture runs deep.

This critique has been revisited in a recent book review in which Yuval Harari summarizes The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.  Sloman and Ferbach posit that individual thinking is a myth, and that we actually think in groups.  With modern civilization we have come to rely increasingly on the expertise of others.  This crowd-think has mostly been good for us, but it also has a downside.  People “…lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.”

Group loyalty and pride in our presumed intelligence causes us to stick to the normal way of doing things.  This is a challenge to those of us who produce or consume new information.  New information and new ideas disrupt stable group environments.  If we are trying to change the workplace so that things are done differently, we must exchange discomforting opinions.  We must propose ideas that will be rejected.  We must try things out that won’t work.