The other night my wife commented that she had bought three items based on Facebook suggestions and that they were some of the best purchases she has made lately. “It’s amazing how they have pinpointed what I would like!”
Technology companies have become incredibly adept at determining our interests and preferences and serving them up to us in a super convenient fashion. However, unlike my wife’s new favorite face cream, some of what is customized for us can be dangerous.
Both traditional and social media have figured out that we prefer our news to be custom tailored as well. We like to read stories (or spins on stories) that conform to our worldview. We are wired to seek confirming information, as it makes us feel more secure that our perception of reality does in fact exist. This phenomenon is called “confirmation bias.”
Only seeing confirmatory information is dangerous because it limits the information we can use to make better decisions. It’s like the general surrounded by sycophants who only tell him what he wants to hear and then marches his army into a disastrous defeat that could have been easily avoided. Our nature is to respond well to people who agree with us and so we seek that feeling. Media loves to give us that feeling so that we will keep coming back to them. And buy their face cream.
Knowing this about myself, I have tried to instill a discipline of seeking contradictory information. I regularly try to read or listen to people that I suspect have a different world view than mine. When I stumble across a new topic, I try to find someone who has a contradictory view of that topic than the first place I heard it.
One of my habits is to read and listen to both liberal and conservative media sources. Flip between two different news networks and it won’t take you long to get some seriously contradictory information. Over the past few months, it seems that depending on which news channel you watch, you could have been living in a completely different world.
Going through this exercise has helped me change my mind about some things, reinforced my views about others and raised my awareness about certain issues I had never considered before. But the primary benefit of seeking contradictory information isn’t that it has made me a more informed citizen; rather, I believe it has made me a better decision maker.
Business leaders can easily fall into the trap of surrounding themselves with sycophants. It may not always be the obvious people who are just kissing up to the boss (though there are plenty of those people out there). Often the problem occurs by having people who are so aligned on how something should be done that there is no one to push back.
A few months ago, our executive team gave me a presentation on a major initiative. The whole team was in complete agreement that this was the right thing to do. Once I realized there was no dissension in the group, I started pushing back hard. Uncomfortably hard. I gave them several questions to go answer and lots of homework to do before we met again.
After the meeting, one of our executives told me how surprised she was that I didn’t agree with the plan. I told her that, in fact, I thought it probably was the right plan.
Taken aback, she said, “well I sure couldn’t tell! Why did you argue against it then?”
“Because,” I told her, “since all of you agreed, I knew that no one else had.”
Seeking contradictory information doesn’t mean being argumentative or simply playing “devil’s advocate.” If we acknowledge that we have an inherently narrow viewpoint that limits our number of options (including potentially superior ones), it gives us the opportunity to view problems from multiple perspectives to unlock more possibilities and solutions.
There is no such thing as perfect information when making a decision. And the challenge with contradictory information is that it puts you in the position of having to make a judgment call as to which information is correct or at least more relevant. However, if you seek alternative perspectives, at least you get to make the choice as to which to believe instead of being ignorant of your options.
As leaders, we need to make seeking contradictory information a regular part of decision-making processes for ourselves and our teams.