Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Mary MacLennan who is a PhD candidate at London School of Economics and a consultant for the World Health Organization and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Over the last five years, I've worked in academia, governments and international organisations on six continents gaining a unique perspective on how the world functions (and often how it does not...)
One common theme that has emerged is evident in the way that people speak about themselves and their work – it is the theme of humility, modesty and respect.
I've seen at times overconfidence from employees in government claiming to possess technical skills they do not have, UN officials not using the right evidence to make decisions, and academics with big reputations not truly listening to what junior colleagues say at conferences. I have observed the challenges associated with such actions and the importance of acknowledging that maybe as individuals or small groups, we do not have all of the answers.
Acting with certainty, and the associated knock-on behaviours as a result, can have important ripple effects – at times leading to inferior results.
To better shape our governments, academic institutions and corporations, we must foster humility, modesty and respect. I have gathered three ways in which we can all improve. They come from my professional and academic experiences and leverage lessons from behavioural science – a field which studies how context shapes decisions, and which takes a nuanced view of human behaviour.
1. Frame assumptions and limitations
Every claim or statement has some degree of uncertainty. In order to make informed decisions, it is critical that this uncertainty is acknowledged - however, in my experience, this is not always done sufficiently.
On the expert side, I have seen government analysts confidently claim rigour behind results where it was lacking, and emphasise showy presentations. On the audience side, in one instance, I presented a simple model to policymakers which included a summary statistic and a slide of assumptions and limitations that were important to understand how to apply the results to policy; however, the policymakers neglected to show interest in the caveat slide and mostly emphasised the key takeaways from my figure.
It is not ok to throw our hands up and claim that receivers of information cannot possibly understand the intricacies of complex expert advice. We should encourage experts and audiences to openly discuss assumptions and limitations in a constructive and helpful manner.
2. Acknowledge the messenger
People are influenced by information communicated by different people in different ways.
Authority figures particularly carry weight, but sometimes the person with most authority may not have the most relevant or important idea. In highly bureaucratic settings, such as the United Nations, I have witnessed hierarchy take control of discussions to an unfavourable end. At times, this manifests in a senior official's voice gaining more respect than junior officials despite their detailed experience in a certain area. This imbalance leads to skewed discussion and ultimately poor results.
I have also been in rooms discussing policy when there has been a need for a teacher, doctor or social worker in the room to help make a certain decision; but instead issues were deferred up the chain of hierarchy to authority figures for answers.
Pausing to acknowledge the source of an idea, and how it has been interpreted, could be highly beneficial in better decision making, and a sure way of promoting humility, modesty and respect.
3. Change the context in a multidisciplinary and experimental way
Part of having humility is understanding that no one discipline or person is likely to have the answers.
The field of behavioural science draws from diverse disciplines such as psychology, anthropology and economics, and it has the potential to design tailored, nuanced approaches to encourage or reduce barriers to certain behaviours. For behavioural science to be truly impactful, it is important to have some element of piloting and experimentation to determine what works.
Behavioural science can potentially be used to push for greater humility, modesty and respect in complex and crucial decision making situations. In terms of practically changing context, one can start to think about how to make desired behaviours easy and attractive, which could include changes to the environment such as creating defaults or commitments. For example, there has been some experimentation with systematic ways to share opinions such as ‘unconference’ models in which the participants themselves drive meetings and discussions.
Our context and cognitive biases can shape our behaviours, often having significant impact at times unknowingly. By framing our assumptions and limitations, acknowledging the messenger and changing context in a multidisciplinary and experimental way we can start to become more effective and inclusive – and have humility, modesty and respect in the most opportune situations.