The Einstein Fallacy – a Social Bias that Drains Productivity
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Posted: July 3, 2017
How to Redirect the Conversation and Increase the Productivity of Your Team
Earlier this week, I was reminded of a time long ago, in a place far away, when I missed a revenue target at the end of the second quarter. A large opportunity my team had been working on for months didn’t close in time for quarter-end and we had forecasted it.
The company and our team really needed that deal and we had convinced ourselves we could get it done. In hindsight, we should have spent a lot more time and resource on getting a number of smaller deals in, because there was no way in hell that opportunity was going to reach fruition on time. (It got done a full four months later, when the customer was actually ready to buy something to address the problem we solved.)
When it didn’t happen to end Q2, and having left the rest of the cupboard barren, it briefly felt like the world was going to come to an end. I must have made that feeling apparent to our team, because I remember one kind Englishman attempting to bring comfort by informing me I didn’t have the “coping mechanisms” to make it in sales management for very long.
The next morning, a few of us were working through every detail in the customer’s buying cycle, attempting to figure out how to create some momentum and determine what it would take to progress the opportunity.
A few minutes in, someone felt the need to interject: “Well, as Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” And those words have stuck with me, in much the same way that Sister Prosper running her nails on a chalkboard has stuck with me since the fifth grade. It used to upset me a little when I heard it, but after some great work by a team of therapists, I now know that is mostly because it resurfaces the feeling I had when we missed the quarter.
At some point in our career, we’ve all encountered this or some other futile attempt to borrow a bit of genius, to make one point or another. Perhaps you have even fallen into this trap yourself a time or two? [author raises hand]
The next time you hear one of these gems in a meeting, you have three choices:
- Agree with the “smartest person in the room” and abruptly reach a conclusion based on something somebody might have said 50 or 5,000 years ago, in a completely unrelated context. That usually works out brilliantly.
- Vehemently disagree, make some judgmental comments in front of the team and utter some profanity laced statement like, “Einstein probably never even #$@&%*! said that!” That technique will likely get you out of this meeting quickly, but may result in another.
- Redirect the conversation. (see section below)
Let’s take a step back and realize that we are all wired differently and are subject to fall into the traps that cause our neurons to fire and mis-fire based on the biases we all have. Cognitive biases – I have them, you have them and so does everyone we encounter, all day long. We’re talking about hard wiring here and that makes it extremely difficult to recognize these biases in ourselves.
In fact, that is a cognitive bias itself, referred to as a bias blind spot. Here is a great video with the brilliant Daniel Goleman and Bill George on how to find your blind spots.
There are at least 92 cognitive behavioral biases that impact decision making and 48 more that are specifically related to memory and recall. Some are a stretch, but a minimum of 85% of them easily invoke a particular example that impacted a sales situation because the sales person, the manager or a customer was subject to one of these biases.
There are also 27 biases that are referred to as social biases and I want to make the case here for two more. (These may end up being better suited for Urban Dictionary than the wikipedia list of cognitive biases.)
Many of us have a hard-wired, difficult to change, need to both leave our mark on a discussion and sound like the most intelligent person in the group, or at the very least on par with the group. And for all of the research, and excellent advice that insightful questions are more valuable than great comments in almost any conversation – well we just can’t always help ourselves. I believe two cognitive biases drive that social behavior.
The first is Roget’s Effect, which is the tendency for people to choose to employ complex terms, vocabulary or sentence structures, in an effort to appear of superior intellect, when the conversation would be better served by the use of simple language. (Example: “appear of superior intellect” = “look smarter than they are”)
The second is the Einstein Fallacy (aka Genius Effect) which refers to the tendency for people to resort to and offer up quotes attributed to well known geniuses, often completely unrelated to the context of the quote itself. This practice rarely has the desired impact on the group and often results in lost productivity. People subject to this bias run the risk of developing and exposing an inability to perform critical or creative thinking when it is required.
Redirecting the Conversation
Once informed about cognitive biases, they do become easier to spot in others, and that fundamentally changes the way we can more productively manage our interactions with people – regardless of the hierarchy or nature of the relationship.
So the next time you run into this, what can you do?
One of the reasons somebody throwing a morsel of wisdom into the conversation takes the air out of a group is because there is no call to action on the back of the quote. Consider a strategy to play off of the quote, instead of immediately recoiling and letting the meeting totally deflate.
Here are some potential prompters to redirect the meeting to a more productive path:
- “As long as we are quoting geniuses, remember Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.’ So let’s think about this as critically as we can. How many paths can we potentially take to overcome the challenge in front of us?”
- “That reminds me of another great quote from Peter Drucker who said his ‘greatest strength is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.’ What questions should we be asking that haven’t been asked or answered? What do we not know right now that could be preventing progress?”
- “That’s a great one, do you know the physicist Richard Feynman? Well, he said, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.’ What conclusions are we taking for granted, that we need to re-think?”
It is worth noting that all of the statements above ended with questions that invite critical thinking. They don’t need to be dressed up, but plan on having a short list of great relevant questions at your disposal for any group meeting. That way you can proactively coach the team to achieve the level of thinking you need to solve the problem at hand. With an approach like that, you have a chance to keep your meeting and your team squarely on the path to productivity.