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How the do-it-yourself approach can lead to unconscious bias and bad decisions at work

Conviction is an important tool for taking decisions, but it shouldn’t blind us

This DIY (do-it-yourself) approach is becoming popular across the world.
This DIY (do-it-yourself) approach is becoming popular across the world. (iStock)

My first business school project was to build a wooden bridge for a global non-profit that could help differently abled children. It was a cold day, with bouts of snow and rain. I was feverish, jet-lagged, under-dressed and famished after a long flight. By the time I reached my apartment, it was almost morning and time for school.

I was not ready for an intense physical activity. With support from my group mates, however, I powered through. Together, we tinkered through the day and built the bridge. Although it was crooked at the edges, it seemed sturdy. A team of structural engineers evaluated the bridge and concluded that it was strong enough. Children from the non-profit would actually use it. We felt satisfied with what we had done.

This DIY (do-it-yourself) approach is becoming popular across the world. From corporate retreats to romantic getaways, astute program designers ensure a DIY component in their itinerary. The approach works because it makes us appreciate the labour of love and adds more meaning to the experience. There is another reason: the Ikea effect. Named after the global furniture company, the Ikea effect states that consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they create.

In 2011, Duke University psychologist Dan Ariely collaborated with two Harvard professors to study people assembling Ikea boxes, folding origami and assembling Lego sets. They brought participants into a lab, and gave them either a pre-assembled Lego car, or Legos and instructions to build a car. They then asked the volunteers how much they would be willing to pay to keep the car. Turns out the participants were ready to pay twice as much for the Lego car if they had just finished building it. Ikea effect is particularly strong on successful completion of tasks.

We value things we build but that’s intuitive. Is there more to it? Research shows people who share the same birthday are slightly more likely to get married to one another. People named Carpenter are more likely to be carpenters and those with the last name Baker are more likely to be bakers. There’s at least a modest tendency for women named Georgia to gravitate towards Georgia, women named Virginia to gravitate towards Virginia, and the more closely the name resembles the state, the bigger the effect appears to be. This can be attributed to implicit egotism, a term coined by Brett Pelham from Montgomery University that suggests we have an unconscious preference for things we relate to.

At work, we can sometimes commit to our own ideas even if they aren’t the best. The “not invented here" syndrome refers to the popularly observed bias where managers refuse to use perfectly good ideas developed elsewhere in favour of their, sometimes inferior, internally-developed ideas. Studies demonstrate that when managers persist in pursuing failed projects and concepts, they do so because they truly come to believe their ideas are precious.

The combined might of Ikea effect, implicit egotism and not-invented-here syndrome makes effective decision making tricky. Does that mean we ignore our convictions because they might be biased? Technology forecaster Paul Saffo, who has created a decision-making framework called “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held", suggests that despite lack of available information, we should develop a strong, fact-based hypothesis. Conviction is an important decision-making tool, but it shouldn’t blind us. We should continually gather information that either supports or refutes our hypothesis. If we uncover information unfriendly to our belief, we should abandon our belief. That doesn’t make us flaky. If anything, it shows maturity.

I experienced something similar during that school project. I was the only mechanical engineer in that five-member team and had built several similar structures in college. However, my past experience was misguiding me. I had failed to account for difference of material and tools. Had we gone ahead with the strategy I proposed, the bridge would not have been stable. Thankfully, other members chimed in and helped build a robust bridge. Unknowingly, I was following the Strong Opinions, Weakly Held framework.

Clinging to our ideas in the face of contradictory information is the origin of most bad decisions.

Millennial Matters discusses the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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