Is your career suffering because of all the noise?

The Media Week Awards are back

The awards, which Campaign calls “the most highly prized awards in UK commercial media” are now open for entries with deadlines looming in June and July.

I’m honoured and delighted to have been asked to judge again.  I have seen the growth of professionalism and rigour in the judging over the years.  But a new book, by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, makes for grim reading as far as judgement in terms of the effects of what they categorise as “Noise” on human judgement.

The book (with co-authors with Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein) is packed full of evidence casting significant doubt on nearly every aspect of judgement, many of which underpin business and society.  For example, a study of 208 federal judges in 1981 who were all exposed to the same 16 hypothetical cases found that in only 3 was there agreement on the verdict.  There was also huge variation in sentencing – in one case where the average sentence was a year, one judge recommended 15 years in prison.

In real life (as opposed to a hypothetical case) judgements judges have been found more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day or after a food break.  Hungry judges are tougher.  One study which examined 1.5m judgements over 3 decades showed that when the local football team loses a game on the weekend judges make harsher decisions on Monday.  A study of 6 million decisions made by French judges found that defendants are given more leniency on their birthdays.  And when it is hot outside, people are less likely to be granted asylum according to evidence on the effect of temperature on 207,000 immigrant court decisions.

This is shocking of course and as you read through the book the evidence piles up for the unreliability of human judges and juries.

More evidence then that evidence based decisions, using rigorous modelling are so important in media and advertising thinking, and why the IPA data bank is so useful.

Are robotic judgements better?  Not by much according to this book.  Partly of course because the rules are based on history (past judgements delivered by humans and therefore subject to bias) or a set of rules (created by humans and subject to bias).  Machine learning is not as unnoisy as it seems.

Winning an award is important and can help your career path, but your career also depends in other ways on the judgements of others.  Studies based on 360 degree performance reviews find that the variance in scores based on empirical performance accounts for no more than 20-30% of the review.  The rest is system noise.  And the noise may have absolutely nothing to do with you – it could be down to a row that the rater had at home, bad weather spoiling their plans for the evening or the fact on the other hand that they have had a generous review from someone else.

We can’t delegate career decisions to machines anyway as the authors write: “Creative people need space.  People aren’t robots… people need face to face interactions and values are constantly evolving.  If we lock everything down we won’t make space for this.”

What should we do to account for noise in decision making, (aside from hoping for good weather and a winning football team)?

Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein advocate appointing a “decision observer”.  Someone who has no skin in the game to identify and point out bias.  This is common on major boards in respect of non-executive directors and chairs, but non-existent in many reviews or on awards judging panels and should be welcomed (at least as a trial).

In addition, high performing teams need, as a matter of course, to understand how to reach agreement when they disagree in a way that steps aside from who is most forceful or charming.  We all need to develop a way of working through disagreements that is transparent in approach.    In Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work we say this: “Understand that there are 3 kinds of disagreement: a) we are using different facts and evidence to reach our conclusions; b) we are interpreting the facts and evidence differently; c) we actually fundamentally disagree.”  We detail how to do this in chapter 6.

Start with this, and at least some of the noise in collective decision making will quieten to ensure better outcomes for everyone.


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