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The Global Scarcity of Rational Human Beings

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It's Worse Than I Thought!
The Global Scarcity of Rational Human Beings

By Kimberly Wiefling

A few years ago I read an HBR article by Anthony K. Tjan that boldly claimed, ". . . there is one quality that trumps all, evident in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager, and leader. That quality is self-awareness. The best thing leaders can to improve their effectiveness is to become more aware of what motivates them and their decision-making."

I heartily agree! But in my most cynical moments I view much of the dysfunctionality I've witnessed in individuals, teams, and organizations as springing from automatic, largely unconscious behaviors rather than from self-aware, thoughtful choices. And after studying scientific research on human psychology, I wonder "How self-aware can a human being become?" As I've mentioned in previous articles, The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders makes it clear that when we explain our behaviors it is just a grand rationalization. And Malcom Gladwell's Blink is a well-known exposé of the power and pitfalls of intuition.

But let's not give up hope quite yet! Since self-awareness seems to be so important to effective leadership, let's explore self-awareness a bit further here, and let's make it personal.

Do you feel like you know yourself pretty well? Think you can predict your own behavior, and the behavior of your teammates, in the project environment? Here's a short quiz to test how well you understand yourself and basic human behavior:

QUESTION: Would you and your team members make fewer mistakes in performing project tasks requiring mental agility if you wore lab coats?

ANSWER: Amazingly, the research shared in this two-minute video indicates that you probably would. Funnily enough, your performance would NOT improve if you were instead told that the same garment was a painter's smock. People who study "enclothed cognition" have found that our clothing impacts our behavior, and even our thinking. Perhaps this explains why people in more innovative companies dress more creatively than bankers.

QUESTION: Do you observe unhealthy behaviors in your organization, but remain silent because you think that the majority of people support these behaviors, and that you're in the minority in objecting to them?

ANSWER: Probably. Human beings in groups fall prey to "pluralistic ignorance," where we tolerate objectionable norms that we object to because we incorrectly assume that we are the minority opinion. Could this be why so many of us work in dysfunctional work environments, but are convinced that the dysfunctionality is caused by "other people"?

QUESTION: Are you open-minded enough to change a strongly held belief related to your project if you are presented with facts that prove that you are wrong?

ANSWER: Not likely. According to "the backfire effect," being confronted with evidence that runs counter to a strongly held belief will actually strengthen that belief rather than change it. Maybe this is why it can be so difficult to get the voice of the customer (VOC) "heard" in the design process, or convince an executive that you really do need more budget to meet the quality goals of your project.

QUESTION: Would you continue to pour time, money and other resources into a doomed project that is no longer a good investment just because you and your team have already spent a couple of years and a few million dollars on it?

ANSWER: The "sunk cost fallacy" says that most people would. Although past investments cannot be recovered, the tendency to "throw good money after bad" is difficult to resist. The Iridium satellite phone system (PDF) at the turn of the century is a great example of how easy it is to waste billions of dollars by falling into this pitfall through "escalating commitment."

What inspired these questions? A couple of my favorite books of all time! I recently re-read the insensitively titled You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself. If you follow my columns obsessively you may recall that I mentioned this book and its companion, You Are Not So Smart, in a ProjectConnections article I wrote around this same time last year. Together these two books provide a fascinating and entertaining overview of the nearly 70 ways that we delude ourselves on a daily basis.

I must confess that I've read both of these books multiple times in the past 12 months, perhaps out of a sense of incredulity that human beings (including myself) can be so stupid, or possibly in the vain hope that I might be able to overcome the cognitive distortions, self-delusions and irrational thinking that plague a typical human brain.

Nothing New. Actually, I became familiar with many of the phenomena described in these books long ago by working in the corporate world. Big corporations are awash in examples of learned helplessness, one of my favorite delusions. This is the tendency to overlook our own control over (and contribution to) what's happening around us and accept an unpleasant situation that we could change or escape. It's usually accompanied by the shrugging of shoulders and a pathetic expression of impotence such as, "Oh well, what can we do? Management is to blame." But what's so valuable about these books is that they amass all of the ways in which we bullshit ourselves into one place. I can't think of a single project team that couldn't benefit from having easy access to these valuable resources during times of decision-making.

Human Brains are the Same All Over the World. Working in global teams, I'm constantly searching for commonalities among people beyond the barriers of language and culture. While there are certainly plenty of differences between people from different countries, the unconscious workings of the human brain unite us. It seems that the way we evolved assures that everyone tends to fall into these same cognitive traps. As a result, I'm convinced that understanding and overcoming these common cognition vulnerabilities will lead to dramatic improvements in the way we work together and the results that we produce.

It's Not All Negative! Based on what I've shared above, you might think that everything you'll discover by reading these books will describe only negative impacts resulting from the way our brains function. But let me assure you that our brains have evolved these sophisticated self-deceptions to help us, and many of them do. For example, if you're a new project leader you'll be delighted to know that the "Dunning-Kruger Effect" (the less you know, the more confident you tend to be in your abilities) will boost your self-assurance. And the confirmation bias will protect you from finding out that you've overestimated your competence. Perhaps most welcome to project leaders and team members, regardless of your experience, is our brain's ability to generate positive illusions, which make us blissfully ignorant of the difficulties ahead!

Awareness leads to clarity, and clarity leads to higher quality choices. Let's enjoy the endless journey to the center of our self-awareness onions! I look forward to hearing your insights and experiences!

- Kimberly

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of the "Scrappy Guides" series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone. "Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet!

©Copyright 2001-2015 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.


Thanks, Bill!

Excellent thank you so much

Great info and observations. Thanks!

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