Pigeonholing People

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When I finished the last article I sent you about apophenia—seeing non-existent patterns in data—I knew that I had only touched on part of the issue. Extrapolating from perceived patterns is a very human trait and we do it everywhere. But, when we see patterns that aren’t there, and use them to inform our decision-making, the decisions are sub-optimal. Sometimes those decisions are terrible.

The example of Fab.com and its ultimate demise was a clear example of those awful decisions. 
In another instance, Booz Allen was doing an analysis for a luxury hotel chain. They noticed a strange data point. There were lots of middle eastern teenaged guests. They weren’t just in one hotel or one region; the client had guests in this category all over the world.
Booz thought that was so odd that they disregarded the information and left it out of the report.
As you know, crafting a strategy without a significant customer demo is a big omission and one that eventually would emerge as a problem.
That’s what the last article addressed. Bad strategy borne of imaginary patterns or assumed trends.

Now, for the Humans…

Strategy can suffer from our misreading data. But so can lots of other things. Perhaps the most pernicious is when we see non-existent patterns in people –whether in their words, behavior, facial expressions, or any other observable thing.

This can cause mischief in organizations as we characterize people based on what we consider to be patterns.

We often promote, fire, reprimand, and underestimate people as a result of our own bad reading of some portion of behavioral data.

Caught in the Act

None of us are immune –especially me. After a long bout with cancer, my mom died last Tuesday. We were lucky because most of us were by her bedside to the end.

I was charged with making the “arrangements”. That meant gathering the “facts’ of her life, reminiscing with my sister and other family, writing an obituary, gathering photos for a tribute, and describing her at length to a very kind Rabbi who would be officiating.

Throughout the days before the funeral, the mental image I had of my mom came into sharp relief. And it was NOT the one I had believed for the last 18 months.

Over the last year, mom became dependent on her children, nurses, EMTs, hospitals, insurance companies and neighbors. She grew physically frail although still strong-willed and opinionated. But where I had once seen strength in that willfulness, I now reinterpreted it as childish obstinacy.

Using the handful of specific instances I observed, my mental model of my mother became one of a victim and someone vaguely lost.

It was a perfect example of extrapolating from limited data to see a pattern that wasn’t there. With that imagined pattern, I created an unflattering and inaccurate generalization about my own mom.

I’d been harboring a stranger in my mind’s eye.

My pigeon-holing her had blinded me to reality. A few moments overshadowed my sense of who my mother was despite my own 50+ years of experience and her 86 years of life that conflicted with those select data points.

We run the risk of doing it with everybody. Especially those we love.

In organizations, it can become more entrenched because once we cherry pick instances of behavior there is no real danger of new data overturning our conclusions. Our experience with our peers is limited by time and distance, especially with remote work.

Suspicion-Certainty Slippery Slope

We draw inferences based on observations or hearsay and assume our conclusions are true. For example, when a sales team closes a couple of deals in one week, the sales manager will think “whew, we turned a corner”. But a good week is not a pattern. Maybe a couple of great leads walked in. Or perhaps the rep went to school with one of them and got the benefit of a friendship deal.

We also do the inverse. A leader may have an affinity for a team member and use that as fodder for a better-than-true assessment. I’ve seen clients of mine promote people because they have a similar verbal style. The CEO likes rapid-fire conversations, and so deliberately guides the individual toward becoming Chief of Staff—instead of longer tenured, more qualified employees.

Imagine you observe a team-member say something and you think it is a bit inappropriate. You brush it off but have nonetheless formed a suspicion that they are (let’s say) pushy. Most of us will not mentally crucify someone after one observation. But here’s where it gets mischievous. If we see a similar behavior even just one more time, we then go from suspicious to certain.

One data point has sealed someone’s fate in our esteem.

Mind the Gap

That’s the problem. There is virtually no cognitive gap between suspicion and certainty –despite the fact that two instances are not a pattern.

It only takes a moment for our brains to develop a characterization. It’s so automatic that you could do it observing someone sitting in a food court. But that character study likely has no resemblance to the human being in question.

This tendency limits the ways we dole out opportunities, and who we develop as leaders and how. Drawing conclusions from unreal patterns we think we see is the very definition of apophenia.

Unconscious Bias vs Apophenia

As you read this you could be thinking that this is nothing more than unconscious bias. But it’s different. Our typical unconscious biases have an a priori quality to them. They are already there, baked into our personal beliefs.

But, when we draw completely novel conclusions because we misidentify a pattern, it is not a priori. It is a fabrication. In that way, where unconscious bias is innate, apophenic conclusions are synthetic.

That gives us the power to intervene before they are formed. We can stop ourselves as we classify something as a pattern. We can inspect our conclusions. The gap between suspicion and certainty is tiny –both in actual time and in cognition. But it matters.

Jump into that gap and interrupt your own certainty about what you think is a pattern. Is there a pattern, or are you synthesizing one? Stop your own generalizing in its tracks and give the people you encounter the grace to surprise you the grace to surprise you.

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