How optimism bias controls the workplace

I’ve always been intrigued by logical fallacies the mental short-cuts our brains take to help us make quick decisions but which often lead us astray.

There is a quite distressingly long list of these cognitive errors that we make all the time and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli does a good job of summarising many of these fallacies (Wikipedia also has an extensive list).

Long story short is that our brain is basically tricking us all the time albeit for a good cause. Maybe not the message you are anxious to receive with your morning tea, but I am merely the messenger.

In short, optimism bias is overestimating the likelihood of positive events and underestimating the chances of a negative event.

It’s a very common mental shortcut and chances are this happens to you fairly regularly without you giving it too much conscious thought.

This is not particularly a problem in social settings, but in a work setting it can repeatedly create obstacles to achieving optimum results, in particular when this bias is held by a group or if held by the main decision makers in an institution whether in the public or private sector.

People tend to have a rosy outlook in situations which require a more sober analysis even when additional information complicates the narrative.

In effect, “things will work themselves out” is a surprisingly prevalent approach to problems that arise in a workplace environment (or alternatively, “what could possibly go wrong?”).

As someone who has dipped a toe or two in both the public and private sectors, it’s an approach I see all the time.

I recall discussing a work matter with a project partner and raising an issue of implementation which I felt wasn’t being properly addressed.

“Rwanda didn’t get where it is with that attitude” the person responded curtly.

The connection between Rwanda’s economic progress and the matter at hand was unclear at best (and it should go without saying that Rwanda did not get to where it is by having decision-makers rely on optimism rather than rigorous analysis).

On another occasion, I sat in a meeting where someone, who raised potential risks was scolded for being too negative.

In neither of the above cases was the actual issue addressed and it’s a subject I have heard other people raise as well in their own workplaces.

There are some mitigating factors for the workplace optimists- human beings simply are not wired to properly assess risk so it’s not unusual to have people either greatly underestimate risks or grossly overrate them.

And of course feeling optimistic usually makes us feel better, and it’s difficult to turn it off when the situation calls for it.

However, using ‘things will work out one way or another’ as an approach to problem-solving is a deeply flawed model. Issues remain unresolved, risks remain inadequately assessed and participants will remain unprepared for challenges that will arise.

And once this takes hold in a group, individuals who are more skeptical will usually be more afraid to speak up and rain on the ongoing parade.

No amount of inspiring pep talk from the boss or the supervisor can rewrite reality and the failure to properly assess the issues can be a recipe for disaster.

So how do we guard against the dangerous side of relentless positivity? For starters, we should demystify the idea that being skeptical and asking a lot of questions is ‘negative’ and unhelpful and we should instead embrace it as a key tool.

Additionally, there has to be a workplace environment where people are encouraged to push back against prevailing ideas even if only as devil advocates (even the Catholic Church appoints an official to be a devil’s advocate to review the evidence when it wishes to canonize someone which is actually where the expression comes from).

Workplaces should always factor in worst-case scenarios and have them at the centere of all discussions.

And at the end of the day, institutions should not allow the big picture to blind them to the dangers that lie within any proposed plan of action.

The writer is a social commentator based in Kigali.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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