Dealing with Authority Bias – A Blind Spot

In the old days of the airlines, the captain of an aircraft was the king. His commands could not be doubted or challenged not even by the co-pilot who was second in command. Even if the co-pilot noticed an oversight he could not openly point that out to his/her captain. Sometimes it was out of fear. Sometimes it was out of respect. Such a behavior caused many fatal accidents to take place. For example, when a very well respected captain of a Russian (former USSR) plane allowed his teenage son to take control of the plane his co-pilot lacked the power or the courage to point out the obvious flaw in decision making. The young child committed some mistake in controlling the plane, which lead to a fatal accident killing everyone on board. Such a behavior of blindly following authority, termed as ‘Authority Bias‘ was rampant in the airline industry.

Since this behavior was discovered, nearly every airline has instituted something called ‘Crew Resource Management‘ (CRM), which coaches pilots and their crews to discuss any reservations they have openly and quickly. This was a very creative way to slowly deprogram the authority bias. Needless to say, CRM has contributed more to flight safety in the past twenty years than any technical advances have.

Many companies are light years away from such foresight. Especially at risks are firms with domineering CEOs and JV partners. In such cases, employees are more likely to keep their opinions and judgments to themselves and not express or exchange their thoughts, observations and opinions openly — much to the detriment of the business. Authorities routinely crave recognition. So they constantly find ways to reinforce their decisions and their status. Slowly this sort of demand on employees leads to what is known as ‘groupthink‘ or ‘hivethink‘, which is perhaps one of the most dangerous phenomenon to emerge in any organization.

One of my clients was suffering from this ‘Authority Bias‘. They were almost bleeding to death. They had had a domineering JV partner, who was the technology provider to the firm. They would simply not allow anyone to have their say in anything. They always had their way. They blamed their partner for being lazy and undisciplined and what not. As a result, employees just closed themselves from doing anything on their own. They actively disengaged from work. Performance and profitability nose-dived to the point where the domineering JV partner decided to quit.

Soon after they were gone, performance rose to unexpected levels and stayed there. Productivity improved by more than 10 times. The organization saw profits for the first time in five years of their operations.

And they managed to survive.

But how does one check for the blind spot of ‘Authority Bias’ in an organization?

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How to create an Incentive scheme to boost Self Organized Productivity?

The Issue

Creating an incentive plan or scheme in an organization is a tricky affair. Most don’t seem to get it right. As a result the desired goals are left unmet. So the top Management feels that they lost in the bargain. And surprisingly the employees also think the same that they have been unfairly treated or cheated by the scheme. Nonetheless it leaves behind a bitter taste that isolates Management from its most vital resource — the employees.

What is known or desired by Management?

However, the aims of any well-meant incentive plan is clear; some of those being —

a) Improve productivity through self organized improvement of efficiency and effectiveness of a production system.

b) Improve self managed quality as an inbuilt factor into any production system

c) Enables employees to quickly discover systemic faults in the production system and self correct those through self-initiated interactions.

What is Unknown by Management? 

a) Management does not yet have a model to work out an incentive plan/scheme that is not only systemic but also self organizing to improve the system.

b) Presently management looks at bits and pieces of data to create work wise incentive plan that is applicable to an individual or a group or a department at most. It does not know how to create an incentive plan that would map and address both interdependence of different departments and their independence too.

c) The same goes for correctly evaluating or assessing the contribution of different types and grades of employees who work in various departments.

d) Management is also unaware of the type of data to look for that would not only help them create the right type of incentive scheme but also keep the inherent dynamics of the system, where the central idea is to create a dynamic incentive plan that helps the production system to be resilient rather than a static one, which can prove to be quite anti-resilient and limiting.

What is needed? 

a) A clear understanding of the system dynamics.

b) The maximum and minimum potential of the system

c) What would be the stability zone to operate in and how to predict when instability sets in?

d) The inherent potential for the system to improve without any additional investment

e) The limit beyond which only additional investment can improve productivity.

f) The right parameters to be selected

The Resolution

The resolution to the above issue is depicted by the conceptual model as shown below:

incentive Plan
Incentive Model

Results

This model (based on science of complexity) was applied to one relatively large Indian multi-national unit and the results were the following:

1. Productivity improved by 1.75 times within 2 months of implementation of the scheme.

2. Self organized improvements took place

3. Real time communication increased between employees

4. Quality improved and sustained.

5. The improvements were self-sustaining without any other capital investment.