Living In An Echo Chamber: Is Confirmation Bias Secretly Destroying Your Business?

By Nacie Carson
17 Comments

We are now living in the age of Vocational Darwinism, and the business skill that will make the difference in every professional life is the ability to adapt.

At its core, Vocational Darwinism is the application of Charles Darwin’s principle of “survival of the fittest” to our working world – and whether you are a budding entrepreneur or a seasoned small business owner, you can’t escape the fact that this is the reality of the post-recession economy we are working in.

The good news is that “survival of the fittest” is often misinterpreted to mean “only the strong will survive,” implying that you need to be the biggest or meanest kid on the playground to keep your business afloat. But in fact, “The Fittest” – whether they are in an ecosystem or job market – are those who are most adaptable to change.

So when it comes to business success, adaptation has replaced social media savvy as the game-changing skill.

Adaptation In Business

But what does adaption really mean, at least in the business sense?

It means letting go of how you’ve done things in the past – how you’ve learned they are done, how you think they should be done, how they have been done – and opening your eyes to the evolving landscape in your industry. What happens after the actual adaptation part is more a function of our natural, biological mechanism than a conscious choice: you either change with the industry, or you go professionally extinct.

One of the greatest enemies entrepreneurs face in any economy is getting too comfortable with how they do things. We get into routines, cultivate little habits around how our work is done, and surround ourselves with like-minded people. Thanks to the internet, it is so easy to shut ourselves off from exposure to changes in our industry and macro trends and instead surround ourselves with mirrors of how we do things or want to do things.

It’s ironic that the internet does this – after all, isn’t the value of a global, rapidly communicating workforce supposed to be the regular influx of new ideas and practices?

Look at your Tweet Deck stream filters; look at your Facebook page sorting options; look at your RSS feed and your blog roll – how much of what you see there mirrors your own work/approach to work versus shakes up the status quo in your world?

I’m willing to bet if you give it a good look you’ll see that it is the former.

It’s nothing to be self-conscious of. The desire to surround ourselves with people, messages, and things that support our view of the world, whether that is our working world or the world at large, is a natural instinct that is commonly referred to in psychological terms as Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias is Adaptation’s Enemy

Confirmation Bias can be defined as a tendency for people to interpret information in ways that confirm their already established beliefs or preconceptions. We do this by homing in on supportive data (people, messages, things) and filtering out, dismissing, or arguing against the validity of any data that doesn’t support those beliefs or preconceptions.

Here is how this intersects with entrepreneurship and adaptation: to be a successful entrepreneur – heck, even to be a budding entrepreneur – you need to have a certain amount of confidence in your ability to perform in your industry and manage your own business. 

To fuel and build that confidence, you self-validate by surrounding yourself with information that your position is correct, your strategies are sound, your way of doing things is right. But overtime, that self-validation transforms into confirmation bias… and soon, we are trapping ourselves into our own ideological rut.

For entrepreneurs, fighting through confirmation bias to allow for adaptation can feel like destabilization. It requires consciously entertaining the fact that how you are currently doing things, or your current plans/expectations/forecasts, are not up to date or – more bluntly – wrong.

But it is possible to work through any confirmation bias you are holding onto while maintaining the confidence you need to do your best work by asking yourself the right questions.

The Right Questions Open the Door To Professional Adaptation

Asking yourself the right questions may seem like a simple strategy – too simple, to overcome this mental stronghold. But you’d be surprised how powerful they can be in helping you shift towards adaptability and away from the mindsets that will send you (professionally) the way of the Dodo birds (poor things).

Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of professionals, including many entrepreneurs, about how they are keeping their career moving forward in the evolving job market.

One of the most common themes was the ability to look beyond their preconceived beliefs about their work or their industry and open themselves up to change by asking questions that:

Some excellent examples of these right questions include:

If you are looking at these questions and feeling a bit queasy, that’s OK – they are hard to entertain, especially when you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into a business model or strategy that isn’t yielding the results you need. 

It is often easier to dig in deeper and try harder than evolve. But this is what is called for in our modern business world, and the choice is simple: adapt and thrive, or maintain and fail.

Overcoming confirmation bias is just one small piece of what we need to do as we endeavor to evolve as entrepreneurs. 

If you are feeling called to evolve your strategies and grow with the economy, I invite you to purchase a copy of my new book, The Finch Effect: The Five Strategies to Adapt and Thrive in Your Working Life (Jossey-Bass, 2012).  It is available as a Kindle/iPad download or hardcover edition.

Here’s to your (evolving) Entrepreneur’s Journey,

Nacie

Photo courtesy of kabils

About Nacie Carson

Nacie Carson is a freelance writer and founder of The Life Uncommon, a career evolution and entrepreneurship community.
Her work on careers and authenticity have been featured in over 200 media outlets, including Portfolio.com, WalletPop, and two editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Nacie's first book on career "fitness" will be in stores in April 2012. You can contact her via nacie(@)TheLifeUncommon.Net

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17 Comments

  • Every entrepreneur has to adapt to some sort of change in the business life. Any opportunity met that can further make him greater needs to be jumped on immediately.

    You also mention in the article that the entrepreneur has to be confident in being an entrepreneur and in managing the business. I totally agree with that. Far to many don’t have the “belief” to make a powerful decision.

    • Hi Samuel – Thanks for commenting, and I love that you brought the concept of opportunity into this…adapting not just to stressful changes but opportunity is HUGE. Great point!

  • Thank you Nacie.

  • Nacie,

    Flexibility has always been an underrated skill in a businessperson / entrepreneur – but you’re so right, it’s essential.

    Do you think more so now than ever?

    I think the world is changing in amazing ways and it’s easier than ever, that means lower barrier to entry, that more people who shouldn’t really be entrepreneurs in the first place who would never have tried before… are trying now.

    That just means the ‘marketplace’ is more crowded but good entrepreneurs will need the same skills they’ve always needed, adaptability / embrace change / leverage / mobilization / influence / flexibility / strong relationship skills / networking… all of the above ;-)

    Your article is great food for thought though – it certainly got me thinking.

    I heard it said somewhere that the person with the most flexibility controls the system – or something like that. It sounds a bit 1984 but I remember liking the expression in the context I heard it (which I’m afraid escapes me now).

    Great article – thanks for sharing,
    Alan

    • Hi Alan,

      I do think now more than ever…while I agree that a certain amount of adaptability has always been key for success as entrepreneurs, I think that now more than ever we are called on to innovate not just our products/services but also our methods of doing business. It’s not just enough to try to imitate what others have done to forge their success, we need to be comfortable originating when it comes to the actual processes of how we do our work.

      Love that quote, btw! Really glad you commented :)

      N

  • Confirmation bias is an interesting concept and a fairly common one at that, given that new businesses latch on to established data about their target consumers and other business practices. This can actually be a regressive step for start-ups.

    • Interesting comment – regressive in the sense that recognizing confirmation bias can make people ignore key data from their market or that it can help?

  • Nacie Carson thanks for the post. Adaptation are things most of us do everyday! Thanks for your insight. Have a great day on purpose!

  • Flexibility is very important in business, we try to think through the changes we face in the new economy, the problem is that with so many changes going on in the world today we seem to spend more time flexing than getting things done. lol
    Great post thanks Nacie
    Cheers
    Andi

  • I was just thinking about confirmation bias and how I’m often guilty of it. I believe it is one of the most inhibiting factors for growth; this inability to view reality objectively. It also makes adapting difficult because if what you see is what you believe you should be seeing, then why change? But you are right about the need for adaptability and being an online entrepreneur makes this skill even more necessary.

    Thanks for a great article Nacie.

    • Hi Sharon – thanks for commenting! It’s funny how even the awareness of something like this can be a huge game changer or produce a serious mental shift. Glad you found the piece valuable!

  • Ann

    Nice update, we had a great financial year which ends tomorrow. Up nearly 40%

  • Your post is brilliant! It reminds me of something I constantly keep in mind, which I read in Fast Company’s THE RULES OF BUSINESS:55 Essential Ideas to Help Smart People (and Organizations) Perform at Their Best: “The first rule of business is the first rule of life: Adapt or die.” Thank you for encapsulating a powerful truth so beautifully, Nacie.

    • Hi Glenford – thanks for reading and commenting! I do love FastCompany – they come up with some brilliant material! Adapt or die is right!

  • The idea of questioning your auto-pilot, knee-jerk defense of the way you’re living your life is often preached but hardly ever observed. Why? Because people are attached to certainty – even if their certainty only extends to today.

    This is why one of the hardest things to get and give is useful accurate and meaningful feedback.

    We don’t like to ask for it, we don’t like to be criticized, especially when the feedback is coming from us and proves we’re wrong. We and others often screw up feedback when we condemn the person instead of condemning the behavior.

    When we can realize that the most valuable feedback disproves our most cherished beliefs, we can graduate to the next level of evolution and become more valuable to ourselves and anyone else we have the capacity to influence.

    Feedback, whether from ourselves, or other evolved beings, can set us free from the need to be right about our paralyzing routines and tendencies and I’m glad you’re on a mission to wake people up about this Nacie. We as entrepreneurs need all the help we can get in this often overlooked department. :)

  • [...] Missing Opporitunies- Confirmation Bias prevents you from being adaptable If you can’t see beyond your own assumptions, you might miss red flags as well as growth opportunities. (Source) [...]

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