The Agile Mindset - Beginner's Mind, Egocentric Bias
To cherish the ego is to cherish misery. - Alan Watts
(This article is part of an on-going series dedicated to developing Agile mastery. Each post offers value to students on this journey, however, there is an advantage to those who start at the beginning.)
More than thirty years ago, Elizabeth Newton (1990) ran a simple, yet revealing experiment. In her study, participants were instructed to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song to someone who was listening. The tappers were also instructed to assess how likely the listener would identify the song the tapper had in their head based on the rhythm they were tapping out for the listener. Tappers estimated that 50% of the listeners would be able to identify the song based on the tapped rhythm. The actual accuracy was 3%.1
What happened here?
It's simple, when you consider the two different perspectives involved. The tappers had the benefit of a rich internal experience of the song for which they were tapping out the rhythm. They could "hear" the melody, the lyrics, and the contributions from other instruments and human voices. Folded into the tapper's estimates was the assumption the listeners were also experiencing the same rich internal experience when in fact the listener's experience wasn't much more than listening to an erratic clock ticking. Using their experience as the anchor point, tappers believed the identity of the song's rhythm they were tapping out should have been obvious.
How we judge others is inherently egocentric. The wheels we turn inside our heads as we work to understand someone else's perspective is influenced by our own perspective. The degree to which we use our own reference point in such efforts determines how successful we are at understanding someone else. This is known as the egocentric bias.
Egocentrism is the inherent difficulty we all have for setting aside our own perspective as we work to understand someone else's. Coupled with this is a strong tendency to have a higher opinion of our own perspective and experience than reality can support. This all rolls up to a psychological need to satisfy our ego and reinforce our beliefs about being a good person.
There is a lot of chatter about Agile coaches and scrum masters being "servant leaders" with very little discussion of what that actually means. Understanding the degree of influence the egocentric bias has over your interactions with others and how to keep it in check is essential to developing an Agile mindset and, by extension, actually succeeding at any kind of "servant/leader" role. As with the other cognitive biases we talked about, this is easier said than done.
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw
To develop your skills at recognizing and understanding when your egocentric bias may be getting in the way of effective communication, complete the following exercises and return to them periodically in the future to keep your skills sharp. The first exercise will focus on written examples for recognizing instances of an egocentric bias' influence.
Find a recent set of email exchanges you've had with someone at work. It should match one or both of the following criteria.
The exchange was contentious.
The exchange involved a measure of misunderstanding that needed to be sorted out in the thread.
It may help to print out the emails so you can write in the margins. It also helps to physically hold the communication in your hands and complete this exercise away from a computer. Begin with the first two emails in the thread. Whether you wrote the first or second message, answer the following questions...
Identify in the second message all the places where the recipient replied to something that was in your message.
Identify in the second message all the places where the recipient added new information.
How would you describe the tone of the second message? Identify what you perceive the intent to be with specific phrases. Are they judgmental? Sarcastic? Glib? Funny? Dismissive? Defensive?
If emoji's are used, which ones? How often? What's the context around their use and how have you interpreted their placement?
The second exercise involves self-reflection. Think back to a interaction you had with a co-worker, friend, or acquaintance where it seemed they just didn't get what you were trying to say. Often, these are contentious interactions, filled with frustrations about not being understood or heard or appreciated. Take a moment and write out on a piece of paper what you believe the central issue to have been. This only need be a few sentences, but add more if it helps. With the central issue on paper, write out what you can to identify the intent of your side of the interaction. What were you trying to accomplish? What made this interaction so important?
With this written out, ask yourself the following questions.
How do you feel if you were to say to the other person, "Your right." Write out the reasons that come to mind.
What was at stake in the interaction? What would the consequences have been if you simply let the other person "win" the point? Write out the consequences.
Research has shown that egocentric bias increases when there are time pressures and tend to be more fixed when people accept assumptions made early in their interactions with others. Coupled with the availability bias presented several weeks back, you can begin to see how challenging it can be to stay ahead of the adverse influences of cognitive biases when working to maintain an Agile mindset.
If you have any questions, need anything clarified, or have something else on your mind, please use the comments section or email me directly.
Newton, E., Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies, Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University