Watch Out for the HiPPO – Avoid Automatically Doing Whatever the Boss Thinks

Will Rogers QuoteIt can be hugely frustrating at work to have your opinion cast aside so lightly when the boss thinks something different. They’ve fallen foul of the law of the HiPPO – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion tends to win out.

The term HiPPO was coined by Avinash Kaushik in Web Analytics: An Hour a Day, to explain what happens if there is an absence of data (as an aside, I feel like it’s worth mentioning that Kaushik donates all proceeds from that book to charity). If you’ve ever been in a meeting where people have looked to the chair or the most senior person for a decision because there’s not enough information to make an informed choice, then you’ve witnessed the HiPPO effect in action.

Why Does the HiPPO exist? – The Followers’ Role

A hippo from San Diego zoo
The other type of hippo – from San Diego Zoo

There are some sensible reasons why people might choose to agree with the most senior person – they may well be more knowledgeable or skilled at that particular task; after all, they have been promoted to that senior position (though we’ve already seen that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re great at what they’re doing now). It might also be the safest place to be for your career, depending on how open-minded your boss is…

This can, and does, result in bad decisions being made, as well as employees becoming disengaged. It happens because of a few different biases (such as the desire to conform and loss aversion – we value not looking stupid over being right), but the big one is authority bias.

Authority Bias – We have an in-built tendency to believe those who we perceive as “experts”. It’s completely understandable for the basic functions we need to keep society going – listening to your seniors about what to eat, how to look after children etc – but it does leave everyone thinking in exactly the same way. That’s not great for making big steps forward in business.

One of the most famous psychology experiments of all time provides a terrifying example of how obedient we can be to authority, known as the Milgram experiment. The set-up for the study was that the participants were helping with an experiment about learning – they were to administer electric shocks, of increasing strength, to the learner when they got an answer wrong.

However, both the researcher, who oversaw the participants’ performance, and the “learner” were actors looking to test how far people would go with the shocks. So the participant and the learner were put in different rooms and the experiment began. As the shock increased the “distress” of the learner rose too – eventually the learner stopped responding at all.

The shock generator used in the Milgram experiment
The shock generator used in the Milgram experiment

Amazingly, 26 of the 40 participants, with encouragement from the researcher (both beforehand, with an explanation of why the experiment was so important, and during the experiment, with reminders that they need to carry on, if the participant started to hesitate) proceeded to the maximum shock level – long after the learner appeared to be either unconscious or dead. Those involved in the study did whatever the scientist told them, even though it meant they “killed” somebody – which is pretty scary. The experiment was then repeated in a number of different studies and the results showed the same thing again and again; people do what they’re told by authority figures.

To emphasise this obedience effect the study was conducted in a lab and the researcher wore a lab coat, but it highlights how biased we can be to authority. At a more facile level you probable see advertisers trying to use the authority bias every time you watch tv – there’s always some doctor or dentist recommending this or that skincare/toothbrush/whatever somebody’s trying to sell.

In a meeting room we see the same thing; when there’s uncertainty we tend to look to the most senior person to decide.

Why Does the HiPPO exist? – The Leaders’ Role

Self-Serving Bias – This is where our cognitive or perceptual processes are distorted in order to maintain or increase our self-esteem. Most likely we’ve all felt this at some time, whether it’s initial resistance to negative feedback, remembering more about our contribution than others or seeking out information to support our own theory (which I try to bear in mind when writing, but I’m most likely still guilty of).

There have been some challenges to the universality of the self-serving bias, so Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde and Hankin conducted a meta-analysis of 266 studies, all of which had results on how people attributed positive and negative results (to fit with self-serving bias we’re expecting positive results to be deemed as more due to oneself and more likely to happen again than negative outcomes).

(For context, the most common methodology for testing attribution is to make someone do a test, then give them a random set of results, but the participant is told that they are genuine. They are then asked to assess what influenced their performance and the researcher judges whether the factors chosen are internal or external).

There are global differences in self-serving bias
There are global differences in self-serving bias

They found that the self-serving bias was universal, but that the scale of it was influenced by a number of factors – children and older adults showed a big bias, while those from the US showed a bigger bias than those from Western Europe, with Asians showing an effect that was smaller still.

They also found supporting evidence for one of the main theories for why the self-serving bias exists – that it enables better mental health by distorting reality to make us feel better – because those with psychopathology had a smaller bias, with depression the lowest bias of all the conditions reviewed.

Further research, by Campbell and Sedikides showed that the self-serving bias is magnified when our self-perception is under threat – i.e. if you’re challenged then your bias gets even greater. For example, if someone sees themself as in charge, but feels like their authority is under threat…

This bias is closely related to confirmation bias (searching for, interpreting or recalling information that supports your beliefs or theories), choice-supportive bias (the tendency to assign positive attributes to a choice, after the choice has been made) and egocentric bias (the tendency to believe that we are more responsible for outcomes than we are and that other people think like us).

In summary, this means that leaders have a tendency to believe their own hype – they get a distorted view of their own abilities, using their promotions, previous achievements and the common support of their juniors as evidence. They start to really believe that they’re more capable than the other people in the room – particularly when those surrounding them agree with their opinions.

So the juniors tend to agree with their seniors, and this adds to senior people believing in their superiority. It’s easy to see that this quickly becomes a viscous cycle, so what can we do?

What Can We Do About It?

Find Data – The term HiPPO was created to describe what happens when there’s a lack of data, so this is an obvious one. Preparing objective evidence is a great way to take the emotion and opinion out of a wide range of situations. You need to stay aware of confirmation bias in order to make sure it’s a fair discussion, but evidence will almost always win out over a strong opinion.

Try to think creatively about what data is out there – if there’s not exactly what you’re after then try to come up with a proxy. Has something similar happened before? Is there something in a different sector that is useful? Any academic research (use a specific academic search engine, even if it’s only Google Scholar)? And if there’s nothing that can give a hint, then it’s always worth proposing a trial. This doesn’t only relate to your own ideas/thoughts – if you’re at a meeting and you can feel the HiPPO moving in, then suggest that the group try to find some data to enable an informed decision. 

Alfred P SloanSeek Disagreement – Alfred Sloan, the long-term president, chairman and CEO of General Motors, had a strong belief about making decisions; they shouldn’t be made until someone had expressed why the “preferred” option might not be the right one. As you can see on the right, he actively used to delay decisions if he didn’t feel there had been enough disagreement – a pretty amazing commitment.

When we’re in a position where we are the highest paid person then we should follow his advice. We should be encouraging people to disagree and be as open as possible. If needed, ask people to play devil’s advocate. You can do this when you’re not the HiPPO too – seek a wide range of views. There’s a natural tendency to be positive about your own ideas, so you need others to supply the balance; however uncomfortable, it’ll pay off longer term.

Seek Consensus – I accept this seems like the opposite of the above, but I’ll explain why they are complimentary. Here I’m referring to trying to build support for, or disagreement with, a concept before the formal meeting happens.

At Valve, they tried to remove the HiPPO by getting rid of bosses entirely. The idea was that if there were no more bosses, then the best ideas would win out rather than the organisation just doing what a few senior people at the top say. People simply have to convince others to work with them on their ideas – theoretically a true idea meritocracy. To facilitate it, people even have desks that wheel around, so they can join up with new “teammates”.

While that’s clearly only suited to a limited number of fields (and if you push people who work at Valve, you can still detect a hierachy even there), it is an extreme example of something that’s relevant to us all. If our idea is good then we should start talking to people about it before getting to a decision point – find out whether people will support it, while also discover some of the flaws in your plan. By the time you get to the crunch time meeting, you already know that others in the room think it’s a good idea and you can bring them in to offer support. The risk of the HiPPO is reduced when there is broad group support.

So we should welcome disagreement, so that we can see flaws and improve our ideas, but we should seek concensus in order to reduce the risk of a flash decision from the highest paid person leading to a viable idea getting flushed away.

Everyone slips up from time to time
Everyone slips up from time to time

Remind Ourselves of What’s Gone Wrong Before – The self-serving bias means that we’re much better at remembering our successes than our failures. Most of the time that’s useful for our mental health – as seen in the relationship between depression and reduced self-serving bias – but it  isn’t helpful in the workplace.

To perform as well as possible, we need to remember what went wrong in the past. Firstly, it helps us avoid making the same mistakes again and again (e.g. organisations continually expect projects to deliver without delays – for reasons we explored here). Secondly, and more relevant to this post, it reminds us that we’re not perfect. We can only increase our chances of success by making the most of the people around us, but sometimes we need a reminder.

Remind Ourselves of the Role others have Played – We find it easier to remember our own contributions to successes than those of others. That same research found showed that it was truly a memory effect; when participants were given reminders about the role others played, they attributed less of the success to themselves and more to others. We should note down how others have helped us, as well as what we’ve done ourselves. We should aso ask other what they think they contributed, so we can both celebrate their successes and give ourselves a prompt about how others help us. Combined with the action above, you reduce the chance that you’ll be the person playing the HiPPO.  

Finally, if you want a specific example of a HiPPO then have a look at this Forbes article.

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When The Pressure Rises, Rely on the Fundamentals

For a number of the major sport leagues this is crunch time – the European football, rugby and basketball seasons are coming to an end, we’re in the middle of the NBA (basketball) and NHL (ice hockey) playoffs in the US, cycling’s Grand Tour season has just begun and the Indy 500 is fast approaching. The pressure cranks up and results matter more than ever. For sportspeople and their coaches, the desire is to do something special to match these elevated circumstances – do something outside their norm in order toFootball Stadium reach a level they can’t normally reach. That’s just as true for those of us outside the sporting elite – whether it’s a significant project, opportunity, job interview or anything else that leads to something we particularly desire, when the pressure’s on we feel like the best response is to do something extraordinary.

As the inspiration for this post, I’m returning to John Wooden (who I introduced in my post on Personal Greatness), who recognised this effect in himself.

In basketball this temptation to tinker manifests as coaches trying to make last minute tweaks to playing style and putting more plays in the playbook, even though there teams haven’t practiced them through the season. Wooden found he was doing exactly this “in preparation” for the College playoffs, and that this was damaging his team’s performance – so he stopped. There was already enough pressure on his team without piling on more new learning, particularly when there was no time to practice it in game situations. This was one of many steps in John Wooden becoming the most successful NCAA basketball coach of all time.

People shift away from their basics under pressure
People shift away from the basics under pressure

This is just as relevant in the workplace as in sport. In Great by Choice (which I first mentioned here – and is a statistical comparison of high performing companies with lower performing rivals during change) Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen identified that sticking to your principles was a major differentiator between the great companies and the okay ones.  Yet when leaders feel under pressure or are near to a major event (like sealing a big client) or feel under threat (like a challenging environment for the business), they often try to do something different to normal – they move away from the principles that made the organisation strong in the first place.

This is often due to “intervention bias” – humans are predisposed to taking action rather than letting things be, with the effect increased by the importance of what’s going on. I think everyone knows the feeling of wanting to do something (in fact, anything!) when you’re waiting. We tend not to think about what would happen if we do nothing; instead we just try to think of the best active choice. This effect is seen in a range of scenarios, including those where it’s extremely important, like medicine.

In order to mitigate this desire for action, you need to make sure the null hypothesis / counterfactual (i.e. what would happen if you did nothing) is seriously considered as an option. Choosing to do nothing often feels difficult, particularly if you’ve invested time/money/effort in getting to the decision-making stage (we’re not very good at rationalising sunk costs – hence why people often continue with concepts that have already been proven to be flawed), but it can be the right thing to do.

That, however, doesn’t explain why it’s particularly bad to intervene when under pressure – beyond it sometimes being a bad idea and any impact being amplified by the importance of the event.  There are another few features which mean we’re worse at handling new information when we’re under pressure: 1) when under pressure (or facing a large reward) our attentional focus narrows and 2) for tasks that we’re well-trained at, thinking about what we’re doing makes us perform worse.

Itunneln my earlier post on the effect of pay on performance we saw that incentives can cause a narrowing in our focus – we can still perform well at straightforward tasks, but worse at anything that requires reasoning. We hone in on what things are “meant” to do. We see the same type of effect when people are under pressure (out of interest, you also see it when someone’s drunk) – our attentional focus narrows, meaning that we are able to consider fewer stimuli than normal. It’s entirely understandable; if you’re being chased by a lion then you want to focus on escaping, not on the beautiful wildlife across the savannah.

It does mean, however, we should be keeping things simple when people are under pressure. We can only concentrate on fewer things, so forcing people to focus on something new will reduce their ability to perform well at what they already know – and it requires more attention to do something new than something old, so the displacement is much worse than one for one.

In addition, for skills that we’re well practiced at we perform worse when we think about what we’re doing (when we’re unskilled we’re obviously better when we think about what we’re doing). Think about when you’re riding a bike; you can probably do it without thinking. But if someone told you that you were only allowed to turn your bike in line with your conscious actions, then you’d struggle – subconsciously we make a small turn of the handlebars in the opposite way we want to go, before then turning the “right” direction.

When we’re under pressure we’re more prone to thinking about what we’re doing. Adding something new forces us to think about what we’re doing, including the tasks we could previously do well. Yet again, sticking to the fundamentals makes us perform better when we’re under pressure.

quotescoverSo the next time you or your organisation have got something important coming up, stop and think about what you really need to do; consider both the counterfactual and the skills you – and, if relevant, your team – have. If you want to try something new, then it’s better to do it when it doesn’t matter too much. You always have lots of options, but when the pressure’s at its highest, it’s best to stick to the basics!

The Role of Genetics in Stress Response – Would You Want to Know Your Workforce’s Genetic Strengths?

After a couple of less detailed posts, this one’s more science-y; I’ll look at a specific gene, how it relates to our response to stress and what the broader implications might be as we discover more relationships between our genome and our performance. My gene of choice is COMT, because it’s well studied, we understand what it does and it has two different types (“alleles”) that have a clear impact on performance.

The Science Bit – COMT and Dopamine

A representation of the COMT enzyme
A representation of the COMT enzyme

The COMT gene is the template for Catechol-O-methyltransferase (aka COMT – if that name means much to you then you’re a better person than I!). The COMT protein is an enzyme that degrades catecholamines (another name not to worry about). Catecholamines include – and this is where things start to get more relevant – dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  The latter two are famed for their role in the “fight or flight” response to threat, but here we’re focusing on dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (i.e. a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells) which plays a role across a number of functions, including motor control, motivation, reward, arousal and cognition. For this article, we’re going to narrow down again to look at just one of these functions; cognition. The relationship of dopamine with cognition is described as an “inverted U-shape” in the literature, but I call it a “Goldilocks” relationship – if there is either too little or too much dopamine in the Prefrontal Cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for “executive functions” – our most advanced cognitive processing) then cognitive performance decreases.

The inverted U relationship
The inverted U relationship

To trim the scope of this article down further, let’s look only at one of the environments where dopamine is released – when someone is under stress. I’ve chosen stress because it applies both in the workplace and more generally, it’s a time when people’s behaviour varies greatly and people often comment on others’ ability to cope with stress. Dopamine is released both in physical and  non-physical stressful situations in animals and humans.

That leaves us here: 1) dopamine is released during stress; 2) the COMT gene produces COMT enzyme, which breaks down dopamine; 3) dopamine has an impact on cognition (where too little or too much hinders performance).

Where Differences Arise

This all interests me because the COMT gene has a number of different alleles, resulting in the creation of different types of COMT enzyme in different people. The best studied of these are two alleles that vary by only one nucleotide (the building blocks of DNA) within the whole gene – one allele has guanine, while the other has alanine. This results in a difference of one amino acid (the building blocks of protein) in the COMT protein, giving two different and functional versions of the enzyme – one containing the amino acid valine (which I’ll call the Val variant), while the other contains methionine (which I’ll refer to as Met). These alleles are co-dominant, so people can be Val homozygotes (two Val alleles, producing all Val variants), Met homozygotes (two Met alleles, producing all Met variants) or heterozygotes (one Val allele, one Met allele, producing both variants).

You’ve probably seen this coming – the Val and Met variants of the COMT enzyme breakdown dopamine at different rates; in fact the Val variant gets through dopamine at 3-4 times the speed of its Met counterpart.

Different Genotypes for Different Situations

Following the logic through, the type of COMT enzymes that you have will play a role in when you will perform best. If we simplify level of stress into high stress and low stress situations and look at those with Val or Met respond, then you end up with these four scenarios:

  • low stress + Val = low level of dopamine broken down quickly = too little dopamine = low performance
  • low stress + Met = low level of dopamine broken down slowly = good level of dopamine = good performance
  • high stress + Val = high level of dopamine broken down quickly = good level of dopamine = good performance
  • high stress + Met = high level of dopamine broken down slowly = too much dopamine = low performance

And these scenarios aren’t just logical, but evidenced. Under normal conditions, Val homozygotes perform worse than Met homozygotes at standard tests of executive function. Under stressful situations, either adjusting the scenario or the task (here it’s making people flick between different tasks) Val homozygotes perform better.

This (massively simplified) analysis would split people into three groups – those who perform best in stressful situations (Val homozygotes), those who perform best in relaxed situations (Met homozygotes) and those who perform best in the middle ground (heterozygotes). The two extreme groups are sometimes referred to as “warriors” and “worriers” if you want to have a look for some more detail on this – though they’re not names I’m fond of because they would seem to infer that being a Val homozygote is better than being a Met homozygote.

Just Part of the Picture

There are a lot of different factors in play...
There are a lot of different factors in play…

Before moving on to what this might mean for the workplace, it’s worth explaining how drastically I’ve simplified the above. Firstly, there are a huge number of other factors that impact on dopamine sensitivity and absorption – for example, oestrogen can increase dopamine levels, there are a number of other enzymes which play a role in breaking down dopamine (monoamine oxidase and aldehyde dehydrogenase, in case you’re interested) and there are a number of other steps in determining dopamine levels (sensitivity to environment, creation, receptors etc). Secondly, there are a wide range of other factors that determine how someone responds to a “stressful” situation (not least whether you actually interpret that situation stressful). Thirdly, the rate of dopamine breakdown by COMT enzyme has wider effects than just moderating our response to stress, e.g. the Val variant is linked with alcoholism. Finally, there are a number of other versions of the COMT gene (and thus the COMT enzyme), like rs737865 and rs165599.

What Does This Mean in the Present?

quotescover-PNG-39Primarily, this acts as a reminder that we need to be aware of individual differences. I think the COMT-stress relationship is a great reminder of this for a few reasons. The fact that we’ve found two alleles which  impact on our performance provides a clear line of sight between cause (genotype) and effect (whether you perform better under stress or under normal circumstances). People often think of individual differences as “wishy-washy” things, but this is a good reminder that they’re not necessarily the kind of things that can just be changed overnight. Stress is an area where this kind of thinking is very common – people are often very derogatory about those who “can’t cope under pressure” and “pull it together” is a fairly common refrain, but this shows it’s not as simple or straightforward as that.

I also like the example because it highlights that differences between us give us different strengths and weaknesses – you can’t characterise either of the COMT alleles as fundamentally better than the other. If we assume that everything else is the same, then those with Val variants perform better than those with Met variants under stress, but worse under normal circumstances. Those with Val variants are more likely to be seen as a “man for a crisis”, while those with Met variants are more likely to be perceived as self-motivated.

If we understand the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and others then we can increase the chances of us all finding our niche – or shaping ourselves to fit a desired niche.

If You Could Know Everyone’s COMT Genotype, Would You Want To?

Before reading on, think about the question above; there’s a lot to consider.

Genetic-discriminationThe advantages of knowing are obvious: an increased ability to put people in a better position to succeed and be happy; an improvement in the performance of your teams; and an enhancement to your company’s approach to recruitment. If the opportunity to access this information was available, it would be very difficult to resist. Imagine recruiting and being able to complement CVs, competencies, test results, interviews etc. with genetic information that provided an indicator of a candidate’s likely success – would you say no?

But the negatives are also powerful: as highlighted above, we only see part of the picture in relation the allele-outcome relationship; we also miss the impact of experiences on people; there’s a risk of putting people into a “box”; we’d likely remove diversity in skills from the workforce (with all the related negatives); and the more difficult to define, but very uncomfortable, concern about what discrimination means in this context.

I don’t know if I could resist – and there are already accusations that some companies are using other tools in slightly disturbing ways (e.g. this interview, where Clive Boddy says that he was told a corporate bank used higher scores on psychopathy tests as a positive for recruitment). I think we’ll need legislative barriers (like the Genetic Information Nondescrimination Act in the US) for us to control ourselves, but maybe you’re more optimistic than me.

Do you think genomics has a role in the future of our organisations? And do you think it should?

The Pareto Principle – What (or Who) is Worth the Effort?

As promised, this week’s is just a short one. It’s also more conceptual and less scientific, so a little lighter on experimental research (maybe I’m taking something from this post) – it’s a look at the Pareto Principle and how we can use it to be more efficient.

Vilfredo ParetoThe Pareto principle is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an economist who showed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. It turned out that this wasn’t the only thing that followed the 80:20 pattern; a wide range of phenomena showed that around 80% of the effects were related to approximately 20% of the causes (including, so the story goes, that 80% of peas came from 20% of pods).

Given how widespread this distribution seemed to be, Joseph Juran, a management consultant, proposed that this was a generalizable concept. He saw a huge number of possible applications for the principle – and it’s come to be known by a number of names, including the 80-20 rule, the law of the critical few and the principle of factor sparsity (because there are a limited number of factors that have a substantial effect on the outcome).

In reality, it’s unlikely that the ratio will be exactly 80-20. For example, the UNU-WIDER 2008 report on global inequality showed that (based on 2000 data), globally, the wealthiest 10% owned 85.2% of the wealth. The general principle, however, holds – the critical few things, people, events etc. can deliver the majority of your results, cost you the majority of your time and/or determine your success.

Wealth in the US
Wealth distribution in the US – the reality, what Americans think it is and what they’d like

In the 4-hour Workweek, one of the big steps Timothy Ferriss took to reduce his working week was follow the Pareto principle. His sport nutrition firm, BrainQUICKEN, regularly served about 120 customers and Ferriss was working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

He had enough, so decided to analyse what he was getting from his customers. He found 5 of those customers accounted for 95% of the firm’s revenues, so he honed in on that part of his business – quartering his hours while doubling his revenues.

But he didn’t save all that time just be focusing on the “good” customers; he also identified and then stopped serving the “bad” customers. They delivered very little revenue, but took up a lot of time in unnecessary (from Ferriss’ perspective) contact and required lots of “urgent” attention.

brainquickenTo me, that was where Ferriss stepped off the well-trodden path. Most small or growing businesses become so desperate for customers that they’ll take on any client. They think that it’s a failure to be unable to deliver what every customer wants, but, as BrainQUICKEN showed, there are some customers it’s just not worth having.

The Pareto principle is often spoken about, as I’ve done above, in relation to businesses (partly because there’s more funding for research on this and partly because there are genuinely loads of applications, e.g. it’s also relevant to a workforce – your top 20% need to be looked after and your low delivery, resource intensive 20% moved on) and external/global factors (like distribution of wealth). I think it’s even more important to us as individuals – and not just in relation to work.

We spend huge amounts of time on tasks that don’t add much value to us (where I’m defining value as anything that we desire – happiness, wealth, power, love etc). We do this in a couple of ways: 1) we do things that deliver very little benefit; and 2) we speQuote on Prioritisationnd too much time/effort/money on doing things that are worthwhile, but the marginal gain of spending that extra resource is negligible. I can’t cover all the reasons people do that here, given there are hundreds of textbooks on that, but it’s fair to say we’d be better off if we did less of it.

By looking at the things we do through the lens of the value those actions deliver, we can start to work out which actions deliver our 80% of positive outcomes and which actions take up our 80% of effort. This allows us to become more and more efficient – whatever you want to achieve.