Every time we default to the opinion of a leader, we risk missing out on diversity of thought. What makes it tricky is that we rarely recognise when we’re falling prey to authority bias.
If someone wearing glasses and a white lab coat asked you to hurt another human being for no good reason, do you think you’d do it?
While your instinct is to say no (I hope), research would suggest otherwise.
You’ve probably heard of the famous 1963 Milgram Obedience experiment. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to understand what caused people to engage in unthinkable acts that conflicted with their personal morals.
In this instance, he was examining the justifications given for acts of genocide as part of the Nuremberg War Criminal trials, where Nazi soldiers claimed they were simply following orders from their superiors.
In this experiment, participants thought they were doing a learning test. In actual fact, Milgram was exploring how their behaviours could radically change in the presence of authority figures.
The study’s lead, an actor, asked participants to administer what they thought were electric shocks to another person (who was, unbeknownst to them, also an actor) and the shocks would seemingly get more intense – the participant would hear the screams of the actor, saying things like: “Stop! Get me out of here!”
The experiment found that a high proportion of participants would continue administering higher shock levels as they were asked to – some reluctantly – leading Milgram to popularise the concept of authority bias.
You can watch a re-enactment of the experiment below.
How authority bias holds us back
In a workplace setting, if employees are conditioned to blindly follow orders they’re more likely to defer to their leaders’ opinions or feel afraid to question a decision.
“You won’t get the best decision, so everybody in the organisation suffers,” says Jennifer Overbeck, Associate Professor of Management at Melbourne Business School. “Or a leader might have a lot of confidence in what should happen, but there’s critical information that hasn’t surfaced that might change that assessment.”
This behaviour hampers an organisation’s ability to grow, innovate and safeguard itself from risk.
Authority bias can play out in other ways, says Overbeck.
“One of the aspects [of authority bias] is obedience to authority, so following directions from a leader unquestioningly,” she says. So, what Milgram’s experiment found.
“Another one is a reluctance to use voice, or speak truth to power, in terms of saying things to an authority figure that you think they might not want to hear. This goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to self-censorship because we give too much deference to an authority figure’s opinions.”
This becomes even more pertinent in our current climate, as employers are pressured to think of new ways of working that suit a hybrid environment, for example, or go in search of creative opportunities to recover lost costs following months of lockdowns.
Authority bias is hard to identify and eradicate as it’s often paired with other unconscious biases, such as confirmation bias – when we go in search of evidence that supports our prior beliefs – as well as conformity bias – where we go against our gut feeling in a bid to fit in with the crowd (watch this 2-minute video on the Asch Experiment to see just how impactful this can be).
So a situation could look like this: a leader comes up with an idea that she or he likes, then they start looking for research to back up their thinking (confirmation bias).
They present this idea to you and the team and most of you see holes in the plan. The leader asks people what they think and someone speaks up to say, “I think that’s a great idea” (authority bias). They don’t, neither do you, but you all say nothing (conformity bias).
Sounds easy enough to avoid, right? If only people had spoken up. But these biases are deeply ingrained, which means they often go undetected.
“At a macro level, there’s a social contract we make in society, in organisations and in groups, that says there are going to be a few people who take on additional burdens and duties, and they’re going to direct and coordinate,” says Overbeck. “That lets the rest of us off the hook. It protects us because they’ll bring benefits back to the group and guide us.
“Both sides have to make sacrifices. The authority figures are taking on the weight of that burden and the less powerful people are agreeing to be loyal and go by what the powerful people say.”
“A simple thing that a leader can do in a meeting is speak last and speak least.” – Jennifer Overbeck, Associate Professor of Management, Melbourne Business School
A top-down approach to decision-making often makes sense in certain situations, says Overbeck, but you need to be aware of when participative decision-making is more valuable.
“It’s the need for innovation, adaptation and for responding to complexity when we don’t have all the information. That gives rise to the need for more participation and input, and that’s where authority bias is particularly dangerous.”
Even when leaders are aware of authority bias, there can be cultural elements that make it hard to shake.
“I’ve been in organisations where the leader was desperate for people to speak up, but there was a very strong culture that said, ‘We’re supposed to be quiet and communication is supposed to be one-way’. Nobody would step forward to take that risk to say something. It was really, really hard to change that culture.”
This speaks directly to a lack of psychological safety. Overbeck says the two go “hand in glove”.
As HRM has covered in the past, when people feel they can’t challenge the ideas of their colleagues – especially those above them in the food chain – it can lead to any matter of issues, from lost business opportunities, mistakes or even critical safety flaws.
Opening doors and speaking truth to power
A lesser discussed element of authority bias is the tendency to be influenced by irrelevant cues that we associate with authority. In the Milgram experiment, that was the researcher’s white lab coat.
In a workplace, it could be a person’s confidence, tone of voice, the way they enter a room, or what they wear. For example, research has shown people who wear glasses are perceived by others as being smarter, more dependable, honest and industrious – all qualities one would look for in a potential leader.
Overbeck has a great example of this in action. When she worked as a professor at the University of Southern California, some of her students had previously worked in the entertainment industry.
“When we were talking about authority one year, one of my students said there was a secret to getting into any Hollywood premiere or award show. The secret was, you put on an earpiece, hold a clipboard and look slightly harried. With these things you could go through any door because all the production assistants [looked like this].
“I had some students who tried it and reported back that it actually worked. And even though production assistants aren’t authority figures, it goes to show that those markers of entitlement can allow you to walk through certain doors.”
Overbeck also points to factors that would figuratively open doors for people.
For instance, if someone walked into a room oozing with confidence and placed themselves at the head of the boardroom table, spreading their papers out to take up space, others are more likely to believe they belong there, even if they have the same level of skills and credentials as a less confident person who has hidden themselves in the back of the room. So when it comes to the next round of promotions, who are the leaders going to look to? Johnny McConfident.
The Dr Fox Effect
Perceived authority, warmth and charisma lead into another interesting psychological theory: the Dr Fox Effect.
In short, this theory is based on an experiment from the 1970s where an ‘expert’ named Dr Myron L. Fox was introduced with a long list of accolades to a group of psychiatrists and psychology students. He was there to talk about Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education (see video below).
Turns out, Fox was no expert at all. He was an actor and all he had done in preparation for this speech was read an article on Game Theory, and learn some of the relevant jargon to pepper throughout his presentation, to give the impression he knew what he was talking about.
In another room, a separate group of students were receiving a similar lecture from an actual expert. Both the actor and expert first delivered one speech in a monotone, unenthused manner and in this instance, students reported learning more from the expert.
However, when both presented their speeches in an engaging manner, ‘Dr Fox’ received similar rave reviews to the expert. This goes to show that it’s not often what you say, but how you say it.
“What’s amazing about this research is that sometimes it’s done in a context where you can tell if the person’s right or not. We’re talking about simple maths problems, for instance. You know if they got it right or wrong. And they get it wrong as part of the experiment, but people still respond to these people, because they pronounced the wrong answer very confidently, for example, and that seems very leader-like to us.”
Even when something doesn’t add up to us, we’re more likely to think we’re the ones who’ve got it wrong, she says.
So much of it is about the jargon you use, she adds.
“I do a lot of workshops about how to be more influential and I tell people to learn about the jargon that’s used for that audience, and just sprinkle in some of those words. It signals that you’re in the group, the ‘in crowd’, and it means that for the people listening to you, their defences come down.”
Jargon, of course, shouldn’t replace deep expertise. Overbeck is simply making the point that sounding like an expert sometimes gets your foot in the door.
I don’t want to look stupid
Plenty of experts fall prey to self-doubt and imposter syndrome, says Overbeck, which oftentimes means they’re putting on an act. It also makes us vulnerable to risks.
“We saw this leading up to the global financial crisis with what are called ‘collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)’, which were very complicated [financial] instruments. The people who came up with these made tonnes of money.
“They would talk to people who were absolute experts in the financial and investment industries. Even though the experts had no idea what the CDO guys were talking about, they didn’t want to look stupid, so they’d just nod their heads and go along with it. Turns out, it was a house of cards for finance. So there is a significant risk in the tendency we have to believe the overly confident presenter.”
“Leaders should see meetings as a place to create a discussion, not a forum for expressing themself.” – Jennifer Overbeck, Associate Professor of Management, Melbourne Business School.
You also need to look at this issue through a gendered-lens, says Overbeck. There’s research to suggest that women are more vulnerable to questioning themselves than their male colleagues, she says.
“When you look at some studies done on persuasion by male and female speakers, and they vary the competence and the warmth of the speaker… it turns out that a competent man is persuasive whether he’s warm or not. If he’s warm, that certainly is a boost, but for a woman, if she’s not warm, nobody listens to her at all. A woman has to be competent and warm just to get to that sort of baseline level.”
Combating authority bias
Organisations need diverse thinking now more than ever. So how can you stop your people from falling into the authority bias trap? Overbeck has some ideas.
1. Keep a zipped lip
“A simple thing a leader can do in a meeting is speak last and speak least,” she says. “People will look for a leader to go first and frame what kind of ideas are going to be okay. It’s really important for the leader not to do that.”
Of course, she doesn’t mean leaders should walk in the room and be silent; they have a job to facilitate other people’s ideas. She suggests they say something like: ‘What’s important today is not that we come up with the best idea, but that we come up with as many ideas as possible. So share all your ideas and we’ll talk about them.’
“You can facilitate a discussion where you ask people to evaluate each other’s ideas or you can prompt a debate. As a leader, you’re still getting all the information you need out of that, but you’re not dictating the conversation. Leaders should see meetings as a place to create a discussion, not a forum for expressing themself.”
2. Carve out space to practice dissent
In a culture where employees feel safe to speak up, they could run ideas by each other with the purpose of asking questions or offering suggestions, says Overbeck. This is a good way to practice speaking up and layering their opinion into the mix.
Something like this can feel a little choreographed at first, she says, but she reassures us that it does eventually feel natural.
3. Develop more than one plan
HR professionals can train teams to use systematic decision-making tools, she says.
“Let’s say we’re dealing with a contentious issue. The leader may have a view on [the best approach], but we want to make sure we get the different views out, so assign two teams – one that’s going to develop plan A, and one that’s going to develop Plan B.
“Then they come in and do a presentation and then we vet those two plans. That’s a way to make sure we’re not just converging on whatever it is that the leader thinks.”
4. Encourage leaders to say ‘I don’t know’
Often people are all sitting around a meeting table talking about something and a word or piece of context is mentioned that some don’t understand. Rather than admit this, most people will pretend to know what’s happening and then secretly Google the answer later, leaders included.
That’s why there is so much power in a leader admitting when they don’t have the answers. It tells others that it’s okay not to know or to ask questions, which often leads to better solutions and an internal sigh of relief when you ask the question on everyone’s mind.
“The actual experts are often the ones most comfortable admitting what they don’t know. In fact, there’s this wonderful paradoxical effect that when people who have a lot of confidence in themselves admit they don’t know something, other people can recognise the humility of that and don’t see it as incompetence.
“If you could start to develop your confidence, that will give you some space to acknowledge those things you don’t know which keeps you growing.”
Other quick tips
To cap this article off, here are some other helpful tips and resources we’ve come across:
- Take this quiz to learn if you’re an ‘accidental diminisher’ – meaning as a leader, you accidentally smother other people’s ideas, even when you have good intentions.
- In an online Qualtrics webinar, XM Innovation Event, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant referred to the authority bias phenomenon as the ‘HPPO Effect’ (pronounced hippo) and that is when the ‘highest paid person’s opinion’ determines the decision, rather than the underlying data.
One thing he does to overcome this in a remote work environment is to utilise the chat function in video calls.”You give everyone the first 10 minutes of the meeting to type out their ideas [in the chat box], and then you go through to read and discuss them,” said Grant. “It’s a great way to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard.” This is a process known as brainwriting.People brainstorm more effectively individually, he said, but we refine ideas better as a group.
- Another thing Grant suggests is for leaders to show they’re open to feedback on their work and ideas.“I’ve seen great examples of this. Brad Smith [former CEO of Intuit] used to put his 360-degree feedback from his board on his office door so that everyone could see.”Carolyn Everson [VP of Global Business at Facebook] shares her own performance reviews with all 2500 people below her. That signals not only that you’re open to criticism, but that you care more about development and improvement than you do about proving you’re already perfect.”
Let us know some of your ideas for combatting authority bias in the comment section.
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