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Unconscious Bias In Leadership teams

One little-known but powerful case study relating to how unconscious bias impacts a leadership team relates to a case that occurred during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when two entrepreneurial tricksters managed to convince oil company bosses that they had invented technology which could ‘sniff out’ oil from below the earth’s surface.

It was 1975, and France was in the middle of an oil crisis. Leaders at French oil company Elf Aquitaine, alongside political leaders in the country, were searching – possibly praying – for a solution which would bring an end to a financially crippling crisis. And in their time of need, two men turned up promising that much needed solution - a miraculous new technology which could quickly and easily detect underground oil reserves from an aircraft thousands of feet above ground. When underground oil had been detected, a computer screen attached to the sensors would change colour. There was no need for millions to be invested in heavy machinery or costly crews as was normally the case.

Oil company executives became so convinced that the solution to their problem lay in the hands of this new technology that they invested more than 1 billion francs in the project – something they did with the blessing of France’s Prime Minister and President. But the early excitement would soon turn to despair when it was established that the computer screen which showed apparent oil finds was pre-loaded with photos which could be presented on screen at the press of a button.

Why were such high-level oil executives and politicians duped by these two conmen? Why did no-one spot the problems with this supposed miracle cure before it was too late? And why did they become so convinced that their decision to ‘invest’ more than 1 billion francs was prudent?

Confirmation Bias.

Though we’d like to think that the people at the top of government and influential companies always make decisions based on facts and reason, that is by no means the case. However skilled someone may be in their field, they are still susceptible to the unconscious biases that often influence our judgement without our knowledge, and confirmation bias is a powerful one of these. We see it operate in a number of ways in this case:

  • Each leader and leadership group involved was in the middle of a national crisis. They were individually and collectively looking to find a solution. If you want to believe something enough, anything that supports that belief grows in importance – and anything that contradicts it fades into insignificance.

  • The collective hope, excitement, and joy of finally finding a solution caused them to lose sight of the need to interrogate data, minimise risk, invest wisely (in much smaller sums over a longer period) and undertake due diligence.

  • They did not use a ‘trust but verify’ approach to asking hard questions, asking for proof that the technology was viable.

  • There was no process in place which encouraged healthy discourse or challenged groupthink. The need or desire to belong to the ‘in-group’ discourages potential dissenters from voicing concerns due to the potential rejection from the group by daring to disagree.

  • Each leader appears to have sought viewpoints which supported a position they had already individually and collectively committed to.

Confirmation Bias Strikes Again

The oil sniffing con wasn’t a one off though.

In 2004 in California, the same idea was pitched to a group of financial investors, supposedly ‘intelligent’ individuals who were expected to make good decisions where finance is concerned. Sadly, just like the Elf Aquitaine executives before them, these investors believed the story they were presented with. A financial investment was made. The outcome? The same as in France. Pre-loaded images on a computer screen.


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