The tendency to overrate oneself is just one manifestation of a whole range of predictable mental errors that can lead us to reach unfounded conclusions – and therefore to behave in a manner that is not necessarily rational or indeed optimal. The causes of these errors are commonly referred to as cognitive biases.

What are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases may lead you to draw conclusions based, not on evidence, but on a particular predisposition of your mind. The list which follows defines seven different types of cognitive bias. In each case an example is given of the kind of conclusions it might lead you to draw.

Confirmation:

The tendency to selectively interpret information to suit your own preconceptions

Example:
If you believe that Jones is not a hard worker, you are likely to interpret many of Jones's behaviors as supporting that belief, even though objectively her behavior is the same as everyone else's.

Expectation:

The tendency to discount disconfirming evidence

Example:
If you think that the dean doesn't get things done, you are likely to remember times in which he was not successful, and to forget the times in which he was successful.

Self-serving:

The tendency to think you are responsible for positive departmental outcomes but not for negative ones

Example:
You may boast about the positive effects of the policy you introduced to reduce the number of A's given by your department, but forget that inflated grading might have been responsible for the subsequent increase in the drop-out rate.

Optimism:

The tendency to be overly optimistic about projected outcomes

Example:
In arguing in favor of a new departmental policy, you might tell your colleagues that it will increase departmental quality in two years, even though previous experiences might suggest that five years would be a more reasonable estimate.

Certainty:

The tendency to be excessively confident in your judgment

Example:
You may continue to believe that a change you favor will increase departmental resources, even in the face of historical data indicating that it is unlikely to do so.

Egocentric:

The tendency to believe that you are more responsible than others for a successful departmental outcome

Example:
You know how hard you worked on the project, but may tend to discount the contribution of others since you have not personally experienced their activities.

False consensus:

The tendency to believe that others agree with your position

Example:
You may falsely believe that colleagues agree with your proposal, because none of them publicly objected when you mentioned it.

How can you avoid cognitive biases?

If you have been guilty in the past of allowing biases such as these to affect your behavior, what can you do to minimize such biases in the future? Well, the good news is that just being aware of your biases is the first step. Giving some of these factors a name – such as 'expectancy bias' – can alert you to their potential impact.

Finding a good fool

Back in Shakespeare's time, the next step might have been to employ a fool who would tell the king what he needed to know, rather than what he wanted to believe. Good fools (as opposed to some university people who complain about everything) are hard to find today, but a few of your trusted colleagues would be more than willing to play the role – if asked. This kind of feedback requires a certain degree of courage on the part of your colleague, and a corresponding degree of professionalism and inner calm on your own part. You must never shoot the messenger, or permit negative messages to cause you to lose all confidence in yourself. Admitting a mistake is the first step to improvement in the future.

Source: Lee Lorenz/New Yorker (2006). Used with permission.

Other suggestions

In the comments which follow some heads share their own tips for avoiding cognitive biases.

Downplay the formal position

"I try to keep my attention focused on what I see as my main purpose, which is to serve and improve my department. I try to downplay (publicly and in my own mind) the fact that I am the head."

Take personal responsibility

"I make sure I always take personal responsibility for failures and give credit to the department for successes. It's amazing how many good things I can get done if I don't try to take personal credit for them."

Avoid fads

"I've watched so many other heads get caught up in the managerial fad du jour. They can become total zealots and lose track of reality – only to come down with a bump (sometimes several years later!) and realize their mistake. I try my best not to let that happen to me. These fads are almost always dreamt up by people whose thinking has been affected by untested preconceptions, unwarranted optimism and unrealistic expectations."

Make no assumptions

"I try never to assume consensus in my department. I always test consensus by specifically asking everyone in the department to state their positions so we can confirm that we have consensus before we make any formal decisions. It does take time, but the 'ten second meeting' approach ("Is everyone agreed? Anyone have comments? No? Well let's move on...") just causes trouble in the long run. Several times my questions have proven to be very revealing. Once, it turned out that three or four colleagues had the same concerns about one of our strategic aims, but none of them had spoken up as each had thought they were the only one thinking it!"

The bottom line is that the cognitive biases that affect us all will make it likely that heads will more readily discover reasons to believe that they have been, and will continue to be, successful – and they will not have to search very hard to find plausible reasons that support that belief.

If instead you adopt the perspective of a scientist and look not for confirming evidence but for disconfirming evidence, you will be able to counter your inherent biases, and increase your chance of genuinely understanding and improving your department. And improvement is what the headship should be all about.