How Does Simulation Help Overcome Biases

We found another great read from Harvard Business Review which addresses the issue of Why Organizations Don't Learn , by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats. This will be a curated content by Think Codex as we strive to solve the following issues as well. Organizations has been spending a lot of money on their employees growth and we feel that this read is important to help learning and development executives to make learning more effective for their employees. The authors delineate the problem using three types of biases: success, action and fitting in, while we will share our solution at the end of the article.


Virtually all leaders believe that to stay competitive, their enterprises must learn and improve every day. But even companies revered for their dedication to continuous learning find it difficult to always practice what they preach.

Consider Toyota: Continuous improvement is one of the pillars of its famed business philosophy. After serious problems in late 2009 led Toyota to recall more than 9 million vehicles worldwide, its leaders confessed that their quest to become the world’s largest automobile producer had compromised their devotion to learning.

Why do companies struggle to become or remain “learning organizations”? Through research conducted over the past decade across a wide range of industries, we have drawn this conclusion: Biases cause people to focus too much on success, take action too quickly, try too hard to fit in, and depend too much on experts. In this article we discuss how these deeply ingrained human tendencies interfere with learning—and how they can be countered.

Bias Toward Success

Leaders across organizations may say that learning comes from failure, but their actions show a preoccupation with success. This focus is not surprising, but it is often excessive and impedes learning by raising four challenges.

Challenge #1: Fear of failure.

Failure can trigger a torrent of painful emotions—hurt, anger, shame, even depression. As a result, most of us try to avoid mistakes; when they do happen, we try to sweep them under the rug. This natural tendency is heightened in companies whose leaders have, often unconsciously, institutionalized a fear of failure. They structure projects so that no time or money is available for experimentation, and they award bonuses and promotions to those who deliver according to plan. But organizations don’t develop new capabilities—or take appropriate risks—unless managers tolerate failure and insist that it be openly discussed.

Challenge #2: A fixed mindset.

The psychologist Carol Dweck identified two basic mindsets with which people approach their lives: “fixed” and “growth.” People who have a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talents are largely a matter of genetics; you either have them or you don’t. They aim to appear smart at all costs and see failure as something to be avoided, fearing it will make them seem incompetent. A fixed mindset limits the ability to learn because it makes individuals focus too much on performing well.

By contrast, people who have a growth mindset seek challenges and learning opportunities. They believe that no matter how good you are, you can always get better through effort and practice. They don’t see failure as a sign of inadequacy and are happy to take risks.

Challenge #3: Overreliance on past performance.

When making hiring and promotion decisions, leaders often put too much emphasis on performance and not enough on the potential to learn. Over time, Egon Zehnder, a global executive search firm, had developed a sophisticated means of evaluating candidates that considered not only their past achievements but also their competencies. However, it found that in numerous instances, candidates who looked equally good on paper performed differently on the job. Why?

A partner at the firm, Karena Strella, and her team believed the answer was individuals’ potential for improvement. After a two-year project that drew on academic research and interviews, they identified four elements that make up potential: curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. They developed interview questions to get at these elements, along with psychometric measures applied via questionnaires. This new model now plays a key role in the search firm’s assessments of job candidates. Egon Zehnder has found that high-potential candidates perform better than their peers with less potential, thanks to their openness to acquiring new skills and their thirst for learning.

Challenge #4: The attribution bias.

It is common for people to ascribe their successes to hard work, brilliance, and skill rather than luck; however, they blame their failures on bad fortune. This phenomenon, known as the attribution bias, hinders learning (see “Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success,” HBR, April 2011). In fact, unless people recognize that failure resulted from their own actions, they do not learn from their mistakes. In a study we conducted with Chris Myers, we asked participants to work on two different decision-making tasks spaced one week apart. Each task had a correct solution, but only a few people were able to identify it. We found that participants who took responsibility for doing poorly on the first activity were almost three times as likely to succeed on the second one. They learned from their failure and made better decisions as a result.

Leaders can use the following methods to encourage others to find the silver lining in failures, adopt a growth mindset, focus on potential, and overcome the attribution bias.

Bias Toward Action

How do you usually respond when you are faced with a problem in your organization? If you’re like most managers, you choose to take some kind of action. You work harder, put in even longer hours, and place added stress on yourself. You’re more comfortable doing something, even if it is counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.

Consider professional soccer goalies and their strategies for defending against penalty kicks. According to a study by Michael Bar-Eli and colleagues, those who stay in the center of the goal, rather than leaping to the right or left, perform the best: They have a 33.3% chance of stopping the ball. Nonetheless, goalies stay in the center only 6.3% of the time. Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving, even if it turns out to have been in the wrong direction, than to have stood still and watched the ball sail by.

The same aversion to inaction holds true in the business world. When we surveyed participants in our executive education classes, we found that managers feel more productive executing tasks than planning them. Especially when under time pressure, they perceive planning to be wasted effort. This bias toward action is detrimental to improvement for two reasons.

Challenge #1: Exhaustion.

Not surprisingly, exhausted workers are too tired to learn new things or apply what they already know. For example, research conducted by one of us (Brad) with Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and David Hofmann found that hand-washing compliance by hospital personnel—widely known to be critical for preventing hospital-acquired infections—fell nine percentage points, on average, over a typical 12-hour shift. The drop was even greater when health-care workers had a particularly busy shift. However, compliance increased when the workers had more time off between shifts.

Challenge #2: Lack of reflection.

Being “always on” doesn’t give workers time to reflect on what they did well and what they did wrong.

Research that we conducted at a tech-support call center of Wipro, a global IT, consulting, and outsourcing company based in India, illustrates this. We studied employees during their initial weeks of training. All went through the same technical training, with a key difference. On the sixth through the 16th days of the program, some workers spent the last 15 minutes of each day reflecting on and writing about the lessons they had learned that day. The others, the control group, just kept working for another 15 minutes. On the final training test at the end of one month, workers who had been given time to reflect performed more than 20% better, on average, than those in the control group. Several lab studies we conducted on college students and employed individuals in a variety of organizations produced similar results.

Bias Toward Fitting In

When we join an organization, it’s natural to want to fit in. But this tendency leads to two challenges to learning.

Challenge #1: Believing we need to conform.

Early in life, we realize that there are tangible benefits to be gained from following social and organizational norms and rules. As a result, we make a significant effort to learn and adhere to written and unwritten codes of behavior at work. But here’s the catch: Doing so limits what we bring to the organization. As Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” In fact, being unafraid to stand out can actually garner respect, despite beliefs to the contrary. Research conducted by one of us (Francesca) with Silvia Bellezza and Anat Keinan found that nonconforming behaviors (such as dressing down at a business meeting or using one’s own PowerPoint theme rather than the organization’s) raise others’ estimation of a person’s competence and status.

Challenge #2: Failure to use one’s strengths.

When employees conform to what they think the organization wants, they are less likely to be themselves and to draw on their strengths. A Gallup survey of thousands of people across the globe shows that an affirmative answer to the question “At work, do you have an opportunity to do what you do best every day?” is a significant predictor of engagement and high operational performance. When people feel free to stand apart from the crowd, they can exercise their signature strengths (such as curiosity, love for learning, and perseverance), identify opportunities for improvement, and suggest ways to exploit them. But all too often, individuals are afraid of rocking the boat.

Bias Toward Experts

Beginning in the early 20th century, the scientific management movement introduced a rigorous approach to examining how organizations operate. In the process, though, it solidified the notion that experts are the best source of ideas for improvement. Today companies continue to call in consultants, industrial engineers, Six Sigma teams, and the like when improvement is needed. The bias toward experts creates two challenges.

Challenge #1: An overly narrow view of expertise.

Organizations tend to define “expert” too narrowly, relying on indicators such as titles, degrees, and years of experience. However, experience is a multidimensional construct. Different types of experience—including time spent on the front line, with a customer or working with particular people—contribute to understanding a problem in detail and creating a solution.

A bias toward experts can also lead people to misunderstand the potential drawbacks that come with increased time and practice in the job. Though experience improves efficiency and effectiveness, it can also make people more resistant to change and more likely to dismiss information that conflicts with their views.

Challenge #2: Inadequate frontline involvement.

Frontline employees—the people directly involved in creating, selling, delivering, and servicing offerings and interacting with customers—are frequently in the best position to spot and solve problems. Too often, though, they aren’t empowered to do so. Even in organizations that espouse “lean thinking”—a process-improvement approach that is intended to involve all employees—standard work practices seldom change, and only expert recommendations are implemented.

How Does Simulation Help to Overcome These Biases

Bias Towards Success

Simulations provide a realistic environment for participants to practice the knowledge that they have learned which keeps their fear of failure in check. The safe space also provides them a medium to test new ideas and obtain feedback on their performance. This in turn would change the mindset of the participants in a way that is in line with their personal development. 

Bias Towards Action

Simulations are designed to be fun and challenging in nature. We have obtained feedback from clients saying that the simulations are fun and new, yet having clear key learnings about the topic at hand. This is because we provide debrief sessions right after to tie the learning back into the workplace. Hence, easier absorption of knowledge.

Bias Towards Fitting In

Dr. Stuart Brown once said in his video on "Play is More Than Just Fun", that people naturally put their guard down when engaging in play. When this happen, they engage in learning that are non-judgemental and pressured thus, eliminating the need to conform as well as enabling themselves to practice their skills freely. Through this creative space, they will be able to find out their strengths and weaknesses and leverage on them as they discover themselves through trial-and-error.

Bias Towards Experts

Within the simulation space, the participants themselves are the experts, the sales executive, the frontline manager and what he or she wants to be (i.e. depending on simulations). This creates ownership and gives them real-life feedback on the subject matter at hand. Besides that, simulations are designed to emulate real life experiences as closely as possible and this provides  them with plenty of on-the-field experiences before they head out into the real world. 

Call to Action

Based on the above passage, simulations are effective learning mediums that breakthrough barriers that stand in the way of learning. They can be specifically designed based on the learning needs of your corporations and we are joyful to see people bringing the knowledge back into the workplace. For more information about our products, you could contact us here! If you have enjoy reading our article and would like to get more updates, you could sign up for our weekly newsletter as well. Thank you for your time.