There is no scientific study that could be conducted to verify the following statement, but I suspect it is true:
We all have used hindsight bias,
and we all have been its victim.
Hindsight bias is “the inclination to see events that have already occurred as being more predictable than they were before they took place,” (Wikipedia).
If your favorite professional football team beats its opponent, hindsight bias would predict that after the game you would claim, “I knew it!” And, if it were possible to rewind time and to play the same game but with the opposite result, hindsight bias would predict you would, once again, claim, “I knew it!”
There are a lot of people who are 100% correct in predicting – after the game – the wins and losses of their favorite professional football teams.
It is hard to be wrong with hindsight bias. People claim and demonstrate their impeccable crystal-ball abilities after the fact … that is, when the future has already happened.
“[Baruch] Fischhoff calls this phenomenon ‘creeping determinism’ – the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable – and the chief effect of creeping determinism, he points out, is that it turns unexpected events into expected events,” (Gladwell, What The Dog Saw, p. 250).
Leadership and Hindsight Bias
Leaders need to know that hindsight bias (1) expects the impossible; (2) is a weapon of mass distribution (WMD); and (3) will target you.
Expects the Impossible
Just underneath the surface of hindsight bias is the expectation of perfection. With the benefit of hindsight bias, a critic can claim, “I wouldn’t have made that decision … you should’ve known.” If error is not allowed, then the perfection is implied.
A Weapon of Mass Distribution
Everyone uses hindsight bias. Everyone. It is a weapon of mass distribution (WMD).
If hindsight bias expects perfection and you are not perfect, and if everyone uses hindsight bias, then you, as a leader, can expect to be its target. Your leadership IQ will be questioned.
What to Do
Even though decision timelines range from the immediate to many years, gather as much information from as many people and sources as you can during the decision-making process. A thorough, knowledge-gathering process can expose that which is unknown. It can minimize “You should’ve known.”
There are times when leaders deserve the criticism, “You should’ve known.” There are other times when it is underserved. A humble leader can say in his mistakes, “I was wrong,” and learn from error. A humble leader is content when she is right and false accusations are hurled her way. Right or wrong, humility serves the leader well.
Cultivate a culture of learning. Support and encourage learning – learning prior to a decision and learning after a decision. Education can lessen the hindsight bias effect.
Leaders are aware that the unknown haunts every decision. Leaders are not paralyzed by the unknown. They are energized by decision-making opportunities, and, at the same time, they are humbled to be decision makers – to be difference makers.