I was recently working with Tom, an experienced engineer, to support him with speculative job applications. We were discussing the importance of researching the companies he was contacting in order to be able to write a compelling ’why I want to work for you’ statement.
One of the companies he was particularly interested in had posted several articles on LinkedIn declaring its support for sustainability and the transition to a green economy. I suggested this could be a useful starting point for a ‘why’ statement and asked Tom his views.
An interesting conversation followed. It was immediately clear that Tom was sceptical of companies touting sustainability and a passion for the green transition, believing that the articles would simply be for marketing purposes. From his experience, in the projects he’d worked on, first profit or cost, then safety, had always trumped any green aspirations.
It got me thinking about how tempting it is to only base our opinions on our experience to date. Of course, this is appropriate and wise for so many things. It’s why expert opinion is respected, why a mentor can be so helpful, why sages are venerated for their wisdom and judgment. It’s certainly one way I like to give value to my own clients - using my experience to alert them, for instance, to possible roadblocks or challenges they might face in a course of action ahead.
But basing our opinions only on our experience can be an unhelpful trap too. And maybe one Tom was falling into, right now?
I’d be the first to agree that not all companies touting sustainability and allegiance to a green transition are genuine, or robust if pressed. I’m certainly cognisant of green wash and the corporate ticking of low carbon boxes to impress or seduce.
But to make assumptions, based on prior experience alone, without an assessment of current evidence too, can become a misuse of our experience, and shift us into confirmation bias.
‘The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values…’ says Wikipedia, ‘…to unconsciously select information that supports your views, but ignores non-supportive information.’
Back to Tom. Yes, it was perfectly reasonable for him to check that the company’s claims weren’t a cynical move to make the brand look good; to search for evidence to test the company’s congruency. But equally, it was important to ensure he wasn’t dismissing the company’s claims without fair investigation. To ensure he wasn’t succumbing to confirmation bias.
Especially as his opinion could have important consequences for his working future. Not only could it impact his ‘why’ statement, which might well influence the progress of his speculative application. It could impact how good a fit he might be with the company’s culture - its values and priorities, what framed the direction of its development. The people, projects, and clients the company attracted. Not to mention a possible rich topic for questions he could ask at interview.
What about you? Have you ever succumbed to confirmation bias? Have you ever noted it in anyone else?
I know I have. It’s so easy to do…. And takes conscious effort not to.
In my work as an accreditation assessor for the Association for Coaching, when I’m assessing coaches for the master level of accreditation (the highest level), alongside a host of expertise checks, aspiring master coaches also need to be able to demonstrate that they are ‘knowledgeable and confident yet working from the mindset of knowing little’.
It was only by working through the various levels of accreditation myself to achieve master level that I really understood the importance - and challenge - of achieving this balance.
I now find it a helpful mantra in life generally. To be knowledgeable and confident – and work from the mindset of knowing little.
You might find it helpful too?
If you'd like to explore this further, why not arrange a free and informal chat with me? Let's talk.