Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Too busy to lead III - The draw of certainty & ambiguity aversion

This series of blogs about leaders being too busy to lead appear, from the emails I have received, to have struck a cord with quite a lot of people. The emails can roughly be divided into three categories:

  1. About 20% from leaders who recognise their situation and have emailed for help to change the situation, which we are busy dealing with,

  2. About 60% saying 'this is so true' from people complaining that their bosses don't lead and spend most of their time micromanaging, interfering in their work and that they spend more time covering their backs and supplying 'urgent data' to the leader rather than being productive.

  3. The rest (about 20%) were from leaders saying words to the effect that they would love to get on with leading only "My staff are incompetent so I have to manage them".

The emails were interesting on their own, however being a researcher at heart I decided to investigate a bit further so I started to ask some questions. I wanted first of all to know what the email writers (251 in all) thought the issues were that led to this situation.
In order of popularity of answer:

  1. Leaders doing what they are comfortable with / used to doing
  2. Role ambiguity between leadership and management
  3. Lack of trust on behalf of the leader
  4. Fear of the risk of something going wrong (Similar to but different from no 2)
  5. Incompetent staff (guess which group this answer wholly came from)
  6. Lack of confidence on behalf of the leader
  7. Lack of training for the leaders and others
  8. Incompetent leaders
It would appear, if this is correct, that the number one reason for the lack of leadership behaviour from leaders is the safety of doing what the leaders know best - what they used to do. Of the 20% of emails I got from leaders asking for help all of them agreed with the statement that tended to behave in ways that were consistent with their old roles particularly under pressure and revert to management activities rather than maintaining a leadership presence.

Last year (2007) Science published an article about the role ambiguity and certainty plays in our brains based on an experiment Camerer did based on the Ellsberg Paradox which I talked about earlier:

Camerer's experiment revolved around a decision making game known as the Ellsberg paradox. Camerer imaged the brains of people while they placed bets on whether the next card drawn from a deck of twenty cards would be red or black. At first, the players were told how many red cards and black cards were in the deck, so that they could calculate the probability of the next card being a certain color. The next gamble was trickier: subjects were only told the total number of cards in the deck. They had no idea how many red or black cards the deck contained.

The first gamble corresponds to the theoretical ideal of economics: investors face a set of known risks, and are able to make a decision based upon a few simple mathematical calculations. We know what we don't know, and can easily compensate for our uncertainty. As expected, this wager led to the "rational" parts of the brain becoming active, as subjects computed the odds. Unfortunately, this isn't how the real world works. In reality, our gambles are clouded by ignorance and ambiguity; we know something about what might happen, but not very much. (For example, it's now clear just how little we actually knew about Iraq pre-invasion.) When Camerer played this more realistic gambling game, the subjects' brains reacted very differently. With less information to go on, the players exhibited substantially more activity in the amygdala and in the orbitofrontal cortex, which is believed to modulate activity in the amygdala. In other words, we filled in the gaps of our knowledge with fear. This fear creates our bias for certainty, since we always try to minimize our feelings of fear. As a result, we pretend that we have better intelligence about Iraqi WMD than we actually do; we selectively interpret the facts until the uncertainty is removed.

Camerer also tested patients with lesioned orbitofrontal cortices. (These patients are unable to generate and detect emotions.) Sure enough, because these patients couldn't feel fear, their brains treated both decks equally. Their amygdalas weren't excited by ambiguity, and didn't lead them astray. Because of their debilitating brain injury, these patients behaved perfectly rationally. They exhibited no bias for certainty.

Obviously, it's difficult to reduce something as amorphous as "uncertainty" to a few isolated brain regions. But I think Camerer is right to argue that his "data suggests a general neural circuit responding to degrees of uncertainty, contrary to decision theory."

It would appear that our response (aversion) to ambiguity may have a neuronal explanation (not an excuse mind you), which may in turn explain why only about 2% of leaders are mode 4 leaders and are naturally comfortable, or more accurately have a greater ability to mediate their discomfort with uncertainty (emotional resilience).

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