Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky concluded you can think of our brains as having two systems. System 1 is a machine designed to jump to conclusions: that shadow might be a tiger: Hide! Slow, laborious System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving. It has limited thinking power and is energy intensive, so it becomes less effective if it is preoccupied, tired or lazy.
System 2 has another fundamental weakness. Its default method is to search for memories that confirm what it is trying to test. This is our ‘confirmation bias’. As every scientist knows, a far better way to test a theory is to try to break it: but that takes far more energy, knowledge, thought and time.
Twitter and Facebook keep us on their pages by analysing our data and feeding us information that we will like – material that fits our world view. Many newspapers retain readers in a similar way. This likeable material also feeds confirmation bias and lacks perspectives that challenge our world view as they see it. The collateral damage is that they reinforce and entrench our existing attitudes whether these are a harmless obsession with cream coloured cats or pernicious political perspectives. Unless we make considerable efforts to find contradictory information, we are easily, unwittingly, confined to our comfortable bubble.
Mental bubbles are neither new nor confined to the media. Many myths, though widely believed, lack good foundations. Webs of self-reinforcing sticky stories help them persist long after they have been debunked. Management myths are no different. Superficially plausible, many appeal to System 1’s tendency to jump to conclusions. System 2 struggles to disbelieve them. What we need is memorable myth-busting material to feed System 2 even on its dozy days.
One widespread myth is that our rational minds will overcome our emotions, leaving us to make logical decisions. The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump will have convinced many that people are not always strictly rational, but most of us still believe that we (as opposed to “they”) make our decisions rationally.
Another popular myth is that problems that hit headlines are caused by bad people - rotten apples in a fine barrel. Stern and Cary debunk this idea in Myth 33: “There’s nothing wrong with the business, there’s just a few rotten apples”. It is rarely bad people that are the real problem: a bad system will bring out the worst in most people. There may have been bad apples at HBOS but a rotten system was an important cause of the crisis there.
This book debunks 43 myths of management, including gems such as “It is important not to show vulnerability or doubt” (Myth 4), “You need to be the smartest person in the room” (Myth 6) and “psychology is psychobabble and there’s no need or place for it” (Myth 22), adding nine interviews with well-known management sages such as Margaret Heffernan and Tom Peters. They conclude by debunking Myth 44: “There are only 44 things to get wrong.”
We all live in bubbles, and that includes leaders and managers. It is easy for us to be attracted to alluring management slogans like “Keep your distance if you want respect” (Myth 27) but these need closer examination. This readable book does us all a service by capturing and demolishing persistent, myths that mislead. By giving their critiques snappy titles and flowing prose, Stern and Cooper provide a memorable source of stories we can turn to when System 1 likes a management idea but System 2 hasn’t got the time or energy to test it. When you have read it, keep this book handy. It will help you to test ideas that emerge from the management fad echo chamber.
Anthony Fitzsimmons is Chairman of Reputability LLP and, with the late Derek Atkins, author of “Rethinking Reputational Risk: How to Manage the Risks that can Ruin YourBusiness, Your Reputation and You”