Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 241
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Reducing Mistakes

Researcher discovers problems in our perceptions of our progress toward goals.

"How are you doing?" is a question that's easy to answer when successes come quickly. Your hopes and dreams may actually come true. It's also a question that's easy to answer when nothing goes right, although it will be painful to admit that your goals are unlikely to be achieved. But what about ambiguous feedback, when some things go well and others don't?

Most of us live and work under conditions of ambiguous feedback. Successes and failures occur at the same time, and often so much information floods into our senses that we could get overwhelmed by it if we're not careful.

How do you form perceptions of your progress toward goals under these conditions?

Jeffrey Vancouver, from Ohio University, is interested in this question. It's important, he says, because the perception we form about our progress toward goals guides our actions and often causes our mistakes. His research has attempted to shed light on this process, and he recently completed a series of experiments that did just that. What he learned will help us reduce our own mistakes and those of the people we manage.

We act deliberately. We do what we intend to do, and at the moment of action we feel confident that we're acting correctly . . . that our actions will bring us closer to our goals.

Vancouver made an important discovery about this confidence level that triggers action. It is subject to bias. That is, there are factors that can cause us to reach our confidence level of action too soon, and when this happens we act before we're ready. Perhaps we haven't thought out the possible consequences of our actions. Perhaps we haven't considered enough of the feedback already available to us, sitting right there on our desks. So we make mistakes.

Vancouver discovered two factors that bias our confidence to act.

When we pay attention to a problem and work on it, we imagine we're making progress, even if we're not. This attention to the task creates the illusion of progress. We can't see ourselves spinning in the same place and making no progress, like a mouse on an exercise wheel, running like crazy but going no where. If we're working on it, we're making progress toward the confidence level that will trigger our action. This is biased thinking and will lead us to reach this confidence level too soon and premature action and mistakes will follow.

This is the first factor Vancouver discovered.

The second is luck. When we have an easy success, we often don't attribute it to luck, although that's what is responsible. We imagine our success to reflect on our abilities and especially on the resources we have devoted to the task . . . the time, energy, and concentration we have committed to the task.

When we have an easy success it biases our confidence level for the next action. We reason that we can safely withdraw resources from this task since it's going well for us. We restrict our attention to feedback and our time for planning, and we act too soon. So we make more mistakes.

Fortunately, Vancouver also discovered the antidote for this bias. It is the very mistakes it causes. When we make mistakes, we stop and devote more attention to the task, and by doing so, we correct the very problem the bias created, and then we make fewer mistakes.

To successfully apply this research in our management work, we must find ways to harness the curative effect of mistakes before they happen, and here's what I suggest. Incorporate these two questions into your everyday thoughts and discussions: "What could go wrong?" and "What would we do then?"

Reference: Vancouver, Jeffrey B., Charles M. Thompson, E. Casey Tichner, and Dan J. Putka (2002) Two Studies Examining the Negative Effect of Self-Efficacy on Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87 (3), 506-516.

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