2. Confront brutal facts

Why it matters

There are psychological barriers to decision making, both at the individual level and at the group level.

New information often comes in the form of weak signals. We need to actively look for novel information or it will be lost in the noise. This could sometimes lead to disastrous consequences.

How it works

We like to be right! Confirmation bias (selecting information that confirms our beliefs over information that challenges them) is an insidious but active element in our decision making process. It’s important to recognize that our subconscious mind actively makes decisions on what information to process. Two people looking at the same visualization might not see the same thing! This is due to the mental model that each individual carries with him and that influences what information he or she pays attention to.

At the group level, other factors can present barriers. Groupthink, strong hierarchy (aka communication to follow chain of command) and deeply ingrained behaviors can prevent important information from surfacing, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

During the misadventure of the space shuttle Columbia, engineers at Nasa who watched the foam strikes during launch requested that photos of the space shuttle be taken while in orbit using spy satellites.

This request was overruled by the Mission Management Team. Strangely, the Mission Management Team never asked the engineers who made the petition of their assessment of the situation. Instead, the Mission Management Team made their own conclusion: “it’s a turnaround problem, not a flight safety problem”.

In the debrief that followed the tragic event, a systematic error was highlighted; a deeply embedded behavior to brand people who voiced their concerns as “worriers” (the boy who cried wolf). This allowed concerns to be brushed away as “a person problem” instead of being taken seriously. This should be compared with the standard principle inside, for example, Toyota, where the rule for resolving safety issues is “fix the system, not the person”. A manager is never is allowed to brand a safety problem as a person problem, he has to always fix the root cause in the system first.

The remedy is simple: Establish an open atmosphere that allows weak signals to be picked up. It’s important to recognize that this type of environment does not come about by itself. As a leader, you have to explicitly engage yourself in building it. You have to say you want it, and you have to live by those words.

In the book “Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most”, the authors highlight four key leadership behaviors that shift conversations from shooting the messenger towards constructive problem solving:

  • Stop arguing about who’s right
  • Abandon blame
  • Don’t assume they meant it (disentangle intent from impact)
  • Create a Learning conversation


Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer: Managing For Conflict And Consensus, Michael A Roberto, Pearson Education, 2005

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Penguin Books, 2010

The bias that can cause catastrophe (Outcome bias), David Robson, bbc.com, 2019