Simon has a problem.
Simon’s been in the insurance business for 25 years. A senior leader at his company, he’s knowledgeable, caring, and well-liked by his direct reports and colleagues.
Simon’s organization is rolling out their own corporate university, and they’re tapping their senior leaders to serve as faculty to teach various courses to their employees. Simon is one of these faculty candidates.
To prepare for this faculty role, Simon attended a two-day faculty boot camp to improve his facilitation skills. During the boot camp, participants had to get up and practice leading groups numerous times. After each practice, they’d get feedback on their performance.
Which leads us back to Simon’s problem.
Simon is extremely uncomfortable with silences.
Whenever he asks questions, he doesn’t give people space and time to pause, reflect and answer. He feels the need to to jump in and to lead them right to the answer.
Sometimes he just blurts the answer out. Other times he says things like, “You should remember that last year we launched three new initiatives and the first initiative was….anyone? Anyone?”
(He reminded me of the teacher in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)
I shared this feedback with Simon. (He actually got to see himself on video, too.) After taking in the feedback, he described his internal experience:
When you point it out, I hear that I’m jumping in. But, in the moment it’s happening, when I’m up there, that pause–which might be only two seconds—feels like two minutes. I feel like I can’t just stand there. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. I jump in because I feel compelled to do something.
In his compulsion to do something, Simon is not alone.
Most of us feel like we’re getting more done when we’re doing something. This is true even if that action is counterproductive. This is called action bias. This bias shows up when we’re faced with ambiguous situations, especially those circumstances associated with risk.
Action bias creates the feeling that we need to take some action — regardless of whether this is a good idea or not. (If you’ve ever had a boss who had to “fix” something that was never broken in the first place, you’ve been on the receiving end of action bias.)
Action bias was first studied by a group of psychologists who studied professional soccer goalkeepers responses to penalty kicks (PKs) PKs are some of the toughest shots to successfully defend: goalies only stop 14.7% of PKs taken.
Of the 311 PKs studied, the kicks were evenly spread between the striker shooting left (32%), center (29%) and right (39%).
However, the most common strategy is for goalies to anticipate (guess) which way the kick will go before it’s kicked. They’d guess and jump left or jump or right just before the kick. They’d jump left 49.3% of the time. They’d jump right 44.4%. Only 6.3% of the time did they stay put.
When asked why they don’t stay in the middle more often, the interviewed goalies said “If you just stand there and the shot goes by you, you look like a fool.”
But as you can see, had the goalies stayed in the center, and then reacted to the ball, the number of saved PKs would rise to from 14.7% to close to a third. It would have made more sense to stay put.
Many corporate cultures are dominated by an action bias. Constant re-organizations, new initiatives, re-brandings, are all done in the name of “keeping up with change”. But what if all of this activity doesn’t lead to productivity?
Action is not a bad thing. After all, action is what gets things done in this world. But are your actions the best actions? How do you know?
If you’re not sure, you might want to take a page the playbook of George Shultz. Now 96 years old, Shultz is the oldest living former U.S. Cabinet member. He was Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan.
As David Leonhardt shared recently in the New York Times:
When George Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, he liked to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He sat down in his office with a pad of paper and pen, closed the door and told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called:
“My wife or the president,” Shultz recalled.
Shultz said this one hour of thinking time was the only way he could pull himself away from the tactics of his job, and think about strategy. It was his time to focus on the bigger questions. It was a time to stop doing, and start thinking.
We all could use a “Shultz Hour” now and then.
What do you do make sure you don’t fall prey to the action bias? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.