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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Battling the Mind Bugs

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Most everyone has dealt with a buggy software program—one that seems to work perfectly until a little glitch throws things out of whack. And it’s likely you’ve had workdays that played out that way, says business adviser and author Larry J. Bloom, adding managers must battle the bugs in their minds that trigger mistakes and poor choices. 

In his book The Cure for Corporate Stupidity: Avoid the Mind Bugs That Cause Smart People to Make Bad Decisions,
released in January, Bloom says humans develop poor thinking habits based on innate survival instincts. This is especially true in the workplace, where managers face stress factors such as a shortage of time to complete projects, unclear objectives, and resistance to new ideas.

People are susceptible to errors in judgment based on distorted perceptions of reality. Even when they know their intuitions can be wrong, he says, folks often are reluctant to abandon their judgments. Managers in particular are likely to identify specific results they want to reach and attach strong feelings to them. 

Overconfidence and a sense of infallibility, which are common among leaders who have ascended the ranks quickly, serve as a “breeding ground for the mind bug,” Bloom says. These are not character flaws, he notes, so much as a reflection that success tends to be based on the appearance of being informed rather than actual information. Bloom points to common mind bugs, including:

  • The assumption error—basing decisions on notions you believe are true without challenging them.
  • Data rejection—a reflexive dismissal of new facts because they contradict norms.
  • Experience bias—the belief that future events will occur in a specific way based on prior outcomes, even though conditions might differ. 

These skewed thought processes lead work teams to spend far more time fixing decisions that go wrong than ensuring they go right in the first place. Even then they are dealing with symptoms rather than the real problem. But there are specific steps managers can take to avoid bad decisions that can plague large organizations such as government agencies. 

Like in any pest control effort, the first step is to identify the nuisance and how it’s affecting your environment. Conduct a mental virus scan. Ask yourself which of the mind bugs you are most vulnerable to personally and which your employees are most susceptible to as a group. 

Bloom suggests scanning for mind bugs in four areas: 

  • Sufficiency (Do you have the correct inputs?)
  • Accuracy (Are the inputs truthful?)
  • Beliefs (How do you color your decision process?) 
  • Social (What is the influence of others?)

Working through these categories systematically can help you identify pockets of vulnerability. Next, you should work through the possible consequences of this glitchy thinking and the ways you can overcome personal mind bugs and marshal your team to combat collective bugs. 

After going through this process individually, it can be helpful to host a group discussion about the issues and how you would like to address them going forward. In a nonconfrontational setting, where the focus is on collective mind bugs rather than any one individual’s shortcomings, employees are more likely to have a productive discussion of how they can hold each other accountable and challenge conventional thinking. That way decisions are more likely to be based on facts, trends and information rather than bias. 

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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