An eye on Illusion of Control bias at the workplace 

Sally El Akkad, Director of Marketing and eCommerce at Electrolux Egypt

Remember when you are waiting for the elevator to come, and you keep pushing the button “especially if you are in a hurry” as if this will make it come faster- we are all have done this! i cannot think of any other reason other than the illusion of control being your subconscious moto… 

According to a CNN interview with Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer – the woman responsible for the illusion of control concept – placebos are psychologically beneficial. “Taking some action leads people to feel a sense of control over a situation, and that feels good, rather than just being a passive bystander.” Put even more simply, Langer said, “Doing something typically feels better than doing nothing.” 

In medical field, taking Placebo gives positive results though they are not statistically significant, otherwise companies would have sold starch for different diseases 

At work, an employee may follow an inefficient process because he doesn’t have time to update it – doing something is better than nothing. 

In investment, Illusion of control bias is the tendency of investors to believe that they have a certain degree of control over the outcomes of investment markets! Ellen Langer argues that we are prone to overestimating our part in successes and underestimating it in our failures, ignoring the role of chance.

What about micromanagement?  Perhaps it is the most obvious expression of the illusion of control. When a manager feels that their way is best, they try to control everything an employee does. The manager feels they have control over outcomes by being strict; they might also think that they can control their employees, which they can’t! 

Furthermore, how can you control free spirit employees? Or in a different sense, the tendency to counteract anxiety & ambiguity with non-rational features of organizations, such as emotions, humor or fantasies can never be fully controlled through managerial processes and will always therefore introduce chaotic features in organizations

For true professional growth, you must give up the illusion of control.

Complexity science implies that managers must give up the illusion of control – when they are trying to lead their organization to some goal. But they do need to create the environment in which creativity can emerge, says Roger Lewin (1999).

According to research by Gabriel (1996). Managers depend on the illusion of control for their reputation, living and high earnings, he claims, which is the source of management hubris. Hubris, defined as excessive self-confidence or pride, leads CEOs to make overly risky bets, or to ignore relevant warning signs and fail to invoke contingency plans. The problem of course that subordinates become aware that their leader is developing hubris and that he will not listen to them accordingly they might choose to keep their concerns to themselves to avoid being labeled as negative.

Yiannis Gabriel (in Sievers, 1999) claims that ‘To the extent that images of the organizational machine and the rational manager still persist, it can be argued that the assumption of rational action itself is tantamount to a ‘psychic inflation’ which leads to hubris which, eventually, will carry ill-fated consequences.’ The problem, of course, is that the difference between justifiable and excessive self-confidence generally becomes evident only after the damage is done.

By convincing yourself of control you don’t have, you’re limiting your ability to make impactful decisions your business needs. You’re also robbing yourself of seeing things as they clearly are. When you look at the reality of a situation, you’ll be able to tell what is within your power – the choices you can make and where to invest your energy

Understanding your cognitive biases is the first step to taming them and leveraging such knowledge will give you an edge.

It takes great self-confidence not to use power and influence to force authority, and to humbly expose one’s opinions to open debate. Humble executives focus on the larger vision and a broad set of stakeholders rather than their own ego. 

I truly admired this CEO characteristics portrait; The best chief executives lead with high confidence. They combine intellectual curiosity with a passionate pursuit of facts. They don’t accept assertions but instead challenge their people to support recommendations with rigorous evidence. An inquisitive executive typically has a great gut instinct and strategic mind-set and treats all assumptions — including his or her own — as hypotheses to be tested rather than bold, strategic visions to be imposed. 

Now the question is, are you willing to give up Hubris?