How (Your) Confirmation Bias Puts Your Business At Risk

Don’t listen to what the economists say. We humans are not rational creatures. Our mental blindspots are huge and we’re prey to literally hundreds of cognitive biases.

These affect any decisions made by anyone – from our most level-headed leaders right through to the tinfoil-hat-wearing illiterati.

One of the most insidious of these maladaptive influences is confirmation bias.

‘But I don’t have confirmation bias! I’m as balanced as they come!’ I hear you say.  

To which I reply, ‘Your belief in your lack of confirmation bias merely confirms your bias towards believing in your own imperviousness to bias’.

While pointing out confirmation biases rarely wins me friends, it’s a worthwhile exercise when you’re an insurance professional, because confirmation bias poses a serious threat to businesses.

Are you aware of how your mental tendency to agree with yourself impairs your company? Let’s look at the whole issue a bit closer.

What is Confirmation Bias?

Simply put, confirmation bias is the tendency to look for and overvalue information that supports your existing beliefs (which, by the way, may or may not be rational), while simultaneously downplaying information that contradicts those beliefs.

As humans, we really like being right. In fact, according to decision science expert Paul Windschitl, we’re 36% more concerned with being right than we are worried about being wrong.

What’s so wrong with wanting to be right?

3 Ways Confirmation Bias Affects Your Business

The reality is that you, me and anyone else is wrong about a lot of things a lot of the time. And ill-informed decision making rarely garners ideal results.

Here are three ways confirmation bias might be affecting the business decisions you make:

1. Assuming Your Opinions are Factual

The less you know about any given subject, the more likely you are to have a stronger unconscious bias towards believing you’re right about it. And the stronger your biases, the more likely you are to make an ill-informed decision.

Smart people are unusually susceptible to this. How? Let’s take the example of a talented doctor working in a hospital. She’s an expert in her own field and has become very good at backing herself. Medicine is the only career path she’s tried and she’s been highly successful. She’s worked hard and everything has gone right so far.

Therefore, she has a subconscious bias that she’ll enjoy the same success when she decides to leave the hospital and launch herself as an independent general practitioner. However, she hasn’t put anywhere near the same time, effort and money into running businesses as she put into becoming a great doctor.

She opens her GP office and things don’t go well. Yes, she’s working hard and giving quality care. She thinks she’s doing everything right, but her business just can’t catch a break for some reason.

She doesn’t know she has the confirmation bias blinkers on. Instead of perceiving the actual factors governing her business success, she works harder and harder and longer and longer hours. The business still haemorrhages money. Eventually it collapses.

To the end she still believed she was doing everything right and, simply, not working hard enough.

2. The Boss Is Always Right (Except When They’re Wrong)

Many business owners I know love the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ because a big part of their role is ruthlessly prioritising what is broke. However, just because you think you can accurately prioritise issues within your company, doesn’t mean you’re actually doing it.

It can be really hard to take heed when people who have no vested interest in whether you succeed or fail point out some flaw in your operations.

Frontline staff are also often the first to detect a problem within a company, yet just as often they don’t want to risk telling the boss something he or she won’t want to hear. Instead of raising an issue they:

  1. Let small problems silently grow into big ones
  2. Create their own inefficient solutions to the problems
  3. Skew the information they provide to management in order to make things look rosier than they really are.

By the time the problem becomes obvious to the boss, it can be too late. Everyone in senior management is blindsided and left wondering, ‘How did this go so wrong so fast!’

It went wrong when management believed its own assumption that problems it wasn’t seeing didn’t exist.

3. Past Performance Is Not An Indicator Of Future Performance

You’ve probably heard this at the end of every superannuation commercial, but have you ever stopped to consider the implications it has for your business?

One of the greatest confirmation biases that business owners face is assuming that because their business has done well in the past it is prepared to do well in the future.

Professor Raymond Nickerson, the world’s leading confirmation bias researcher, explains our tendency to preference conclusions we make early on in our business journey:

“When a person must draw a conclusion on the basis of information acquired and integrated over time, the information acquired early in the process is likely to carry more weight than that acquired later.”

Thus, we over-value the way we did things when business was going well. Just because your business experienced growth last year, it doesn’t mean you were the main factor in that growth or that the growth will naturally continue this year.

How Confirmation Bias Works And Why We All Have It

Don’t think that confirmation bias is just ego taking over. Although overconfidence plays a large role in many poor business decisions, the root cause of confirmation bias harkens back to the fight or flight response our primitive ancestors needed to stay alive.

Early humans used cognitive-processing shortcuts like fight or flight to quickly and efficiently respond to life or death circumstances.

With the stakes so high, it was always better to err on the side of caution: privileging harmful past experiences over careful evaluation of the information at hand. After all, it is better to mistake a thousand trees for a tiger and run away than to mistake one tiger for a tree and stand still!

Today the threat of being eaten alive has all but disappeared, yet the cognitive survival mechanisms that resulted from about a million years of facing such risks are still hard-wired into us. They still govern much of our day-to-day decision making.

How You Can Protect Your Business From Your Biases

The good news is there are steps to take to mitigate the negative effects of your cognitive biases for your business. Here are four:

1. Acknowledge Your Biases

Confirmation bias is particularly problematic when you either:

  1. Genuinely don’t know it is influencing you
  2. Believe you can’t be influenced in the first place.

As they say in AA, ‘acknowledging you have a problem is the first step’. Only when you’re aware of the role confirmation bias plays in your life can you begin to work within its effects.

No, you’ll never be able to completely quash your biases. But, if you can be a little more aware of yours than your competitors are of theirs, you’ll be 10 streets ahead.

Ironically, you have to admit how vulnerable you are in order to reduce your vulnerability.

2. Collaborate With Independent Third Parties

As an insurance broker, I have the privilege of seeing how many different businesses in many different industries operate.

It’s my job to learn the ins-and-outs of these businesses so that I can offer accurate risk advice to owners who, while exceptional at what they do, can often no longer see the forest for the trees. Often, I have uncomfortable things to say.

The business owners who continue to thrive after I’ve come on board tend to be those who fully embrace a collaborative approach.

To put it plainly, it is easier to see someone else’s biases than it is to see your own. By allowing fresh eyes to take a look at your business, you’ll recognise the blindspots that your own cognitive biases have caused.

3. Encourage Dissent

Yep, you should actively seek out opinions, attitudes and beliefs that are uncomfortable. It’s very healthy for your staff to feel comfortable speaking out. Dissent in the ranks is exactly what leaders need when a tiger is picking off troops in the rear.

Don’t let a belief in your own superior business acumen or a fear of being undermined cloud your judgement. Great leaders are receptive to criticism and questioning. They encourage critical analysis. This is how they ensure that their company’s culture is free from the toxic, compounding effects of confirmation bias.

Many multinational companies have suffered because their leaders raised an army of ‘yes men’. Lee Iacocca at Chrysler is a legendary example. Learn from their mistakes!

4. Question Your Immediate Reactions

The human brain is naturally lazy. Combatting this laziness with intentional critical thinking is one of the most effective ways to fend off the negative effects of confirmation biases.

The next time you’re in the middle of a conversation and someone makes a statement you don’t agree with, have the insight to stop and ask yourself why you don’t agree.

Is it simply because you have an alternative opinion, or are you privy to factual information the other party isn’t?

Do you have a preconceived bias on that particular subject?

If so, where does that bias stem from?

Train your brain to ask these questions and you will become more self-aware and less susceptible to unconscious bias (just don’t start thinking you’re completely infallible!).

The Bottom Line

There is a Mark Twain quote I come back to almost every day:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Because of the way human brains have developed, we all have confirmation bias. How you deal with your personal biases has a huge effect on your business.

Ignore them or refuse to acknowledge their existence and you’ll be exposed to risks that could destroy you.

Accept that your decision making is influenced by invisible biases then learn how to counter them, and you’ll be able to take risks your competitors think are too ‘risky’. You’ll be able to repeat successes they couldn’t pull off even once. And you’ll reap rewards while they languish in ill-informed decisions.

In my field, the simplest proof that defying your confirmation bias works happens when I advise a client to get cover against a certain kind of incident.

I can see how their growth is continually ramping up its probability, but their confirmation bias means they can’t see this. You’d be amazed how often the incident happens within 18 months.

The choice to confront your cognitive shortcomings is yours. If you’re ready to have your eyes opened to more of the bigger picture, drop me a line at morgan.appleby@alleviate.insure or call 1300 253 848.

Business Insurance 101: The Fundamental Concepts

This article is for people who don’t understand business insurance, but need to. This usually means you’re in business yourself. And, if you’re in business already, then you probably already have the main thing you need to make enough sense of the whole topic of business insurance: instincts. There are two major business instincts relevant here:

  • Business Instinct A: Am I getting a fair deal?
  • Business Instinct B: Do I know enough to know if I’m getting a fair deal?

In this article, I’m going to cover the basics of business insurance so that when you’re ready to get cover, you’ll have your bearings and know the right questions to ask. I’m going to fill you in on a bit of B so you have a sharper instinct A.

What is insurance?

In short, insurance is a promise (contract) between you and your insurer wherein you both agree that if an “insurable event” happens to you in the next 365 days and you’ve paid your premiums (a fixed cost outlined in your contract), the insurer will pay you a certain amount of money to cover your losses.

However, as you might have guessed, not all promises are alike. The types of events that you can be insured against, the amount of money you have to pay your insurer every billing period, and what you can claim if the worst happens will all vary according to which insurer, policy and type of insurance you take out.  

No insurance policy will ever cover every risk associated with running a business. Not only is it impossible to plan for every single thing that might happen to your company, but even if an insurer could do that their premiums would be through the roof.

This is where prudent advice and good risk management come into play. A good insurance broker will study and understand your business. Once they have a good grasp on your revenue streams, they’ll be able to explain in depth:

  • the cover you have
  • the cover you need
  • the cover you can probably do without.

Most importantly they will be able to tell which of your risks are uninsurable.

Then, if they’re qualified or educated to do so through some form of academic qualifications in risk management, they’ll also guide you through setting up procedures in your business to try to alleviate some of the unknowns to help keep your insurance premiums reasonable and sustainable.

How insurers decide the value of a policy

Insurance companies rely on specialists called actuaries to calculate the risks in a specific occupation or industry.

Actuaries study every single detail of a business operation and then use algorithmic models to calculate insurance premiums. For example, an actuary at a sawmill will consider many factors including (but by no means limited to):

  • Geographic business location
  • Type of timber
  • Age of equipment
  • Staff training
  • Construction of the business facility
  • Nearby emergency services support
  • Local environment
  • Historical industry data on prior claims.

Once they have these and hundreds more data points, the actuary gets number crunching. From their findings, they then advise the insurers as to what the risk profile of the operation is. Using this information, the insurer can work out what a profitable yet fair insurance premium would look like and what their policy will and will not cover.

The 7 types of insurance your business might need

Many businesses underestimate how much risk they’re exposed to every day. While most business people are aware that their company could be affected by a fire, burglary, flooding, equipment breakdowns or some kind of accident, they don’t realise that there are many other very real threats they should insure against. Let’s look at a few:

  1. Professional liability insurance: If you’re a professional, chances are that a mistake you make could cause one of your clients financial loss – and those are the type of mistakes that preface lawsuits. This insurance isn’t just for doctors or lawyers, however. Even a marketing professional who is responsible for a brand’s image should consider taking out professional liability insurance. If you’re good at what you do, chances of a claim is unlikely. The problem is that it’s usually the legal defence costs that result in a higher expense that the actual financial loss itself.
  2. Product liability insurance: What would you do if a product you manufacture causes property damage, injures or even kills a consumer? If you have product liability insurance, you can rest assured knowing that a personal injury or property damage lawsuit won’t destroy your business. A common misunderstanding in product-type exposures are your obligations under Australian law. In short, if you import anything for ‘resale’ under our legislation, you are deemed to be the ‘manufacturer’ of that product.
  3. Public liability insurance: Does your business interact with the public? If so, you need to know that in the event that someone is injured or their property is damaged while you’re providing your services, you could be liable to cover their losses. Public liability insurance is designed to protect you from this.
  4. Property insurance: Anyone whose business is located within a specific physical premises needs property insurance. This type of insurance is designed to ensure that both the building you operate out of and the equipment and inventory within it are covered in the event of a fire, flood or break-in.
  5. WorkCover: Every Queensland business that employs workers is legally obligated to insure against workplace accidents with a WorkCover policy. Other jurisdictions have similar regulations.
  6. Business interruption insurance: How long could your business survive an unexpected interruption to trade? One week? One month? One year? This type of insurance can help contribute to your cash flow if you experience a loss of revenue, a loss of name and good fame, or some other event that interrupts trade.
  7. Car insurance: Taking out a policy for your work vehicles is a no-brainer. You insure your family car, so why wouldn’t you do the same for your business cars?

How business insurance differs from personal insurance

First up: personal insurance policies are a lot simpler than business policies. While people who don’t own businesses simply need to insure tangible assets like their income and property, business owners must insure both tangible and intangible assets (such as loss of trade).

For example, consider the many questions that must be asked when a loss of trade claim is being evaluated:

  • Who/what is responsible for the loss of trade?
  • Has the business also suffered a loss of reputation?
  • Are there measurable lost opportunities?
  • Is the business’s revenue straightforward and easy to average, or do recent records include windfalls?
  • Will purchases need to be made to restore the business to its former earning capacity?
  • How much revenue will be lost until those purchases are made?
  • How do each of these factors affect the other factors?

The more business insurance research you do, the more you realise how irreducibly complex your business is! There are so many different cogs in the machine, and they must all work together for you to make a safely insurable profit.

If your livelihood hinges upon your business working smoothly every day, I cannot overstate how important it is that you have a backup plan for if/when one of these cogs conks out!

5 tips for making your business more insurable

When it comes to buying insurance for your business, there are steps you can take to get access to more cheaper premiums. If you want the most competitive offers on the market, it’s a good idea to:

  1. Mitigate risks: Have policies and procedures (safety training, risk management reviews, etc.) in place that reduce the likelihood of an incident happening in the first place. This is often the best and cheapest form of ‘insurance’ possible.
  2. Improve security around your business: Installing alarms, cameras, sprinklers, digital security protocols and other security products may be a significant short-term cost to your business, but this can help you save a lot on your premiums over the long term.
  3. Bundle your insurance: If you own multiple businesses, you may be able to get a better deal by insuring them all under one company. Just make sure that each policy provides adequate, tailored coverage for its corresponding business.
  4. Pay in advance: As with health and vehicle insurance, you’ll pay more if you opt to pay monthly. If you can, pay your premiums for the whole year in one go.
  5. Use a broker: Cheap insurance isn’t always good insurance, so unless you enjoy reading fine print and studying industry jargon, it’s a good idea to find an independent broker who will do the research and bargaining for you.

How you can invalidate your business insurance policy

When you take out a standard business insurance policy, you can rightfully then expect to be provided with 12 months of cover. There are, however, certain circumstances that can invalidate your insurance policy. These include:

  • Failure to pay premiums: If you miss a payment you may not be covered until you’re caught up again.
  • Deception (deliberate or accidental): If you make a false statement (whether deliberately or accidentally) about one or more aspects of your business during your application process, not only will this deception affect whether your future claims will be paid out, you may also find yourself in trouble with the law! You must always be honest with your insurer and disclose all relevant information. The rule of thumb here: if you’re not sure, get advice.
  • Illegal activities: In the event your business incurs a loss because of your criminal behaviour, don’t expect your insurer to pick up the slack.

In addition to these definite deal-breakers, most policies will include other exclusions. It’s important to understand what your policy will and won’t cover.

Don’t be afraid to ask your insurance broker or the insurer themselves very specific ‘what if’ questions. It’s better to pay a little bit more for the cover you need than to be paying low premiums for a policy that won’t help you out when you really need it!

Business insurance 101

So there you have it, the basics of business insurance. We have looked at what insurance really is and touched on how insurers go about offering it.

You now have a grounding in the basic types of business insurance and how the field differs from personal insurance. And last, we touched on ways you can make your business more insurable … plus a few things you can do to make it much, much less insurable.

All that lot should be enough to satisfy Business Instinct B (knowing enough to make the next step) as mentioned back in the introduction. So, what is the next step that’s going to start exercising Business Instinct A? Find an insurer or insurance broker to apply all the concepts we have talked about to your specific situation.

Get the risks right, and you’ll be able to safely repeat them … and reap the rewards. Want to know more about how business insurance is a crucial gateway to growth? Drop me a line: morgan.appleby@alleviate.insure

 

Get to know Morgan Appleby, Director of Alleviate Risk

Alleviate Risk is a Brisbane-based business insurance broker that does things a little differently. Where other companies in the insurance industry focus on what happens after a claim, Alleviate Risk lives up to its name – advising its clients on how to alleviate risk in the first place. Find out more about Morgan Appleby, the man behind the business that aims to prevent its clients from ever actually making a claim.

Morgan Appleby Director
Morgan Appleby

Q: Most people equate the word “insurance” with “boring”, but that doesn’t seem to fit with your philosophy at Alleviate Risk. Why not?

Morgan: It’s true the insurance industry can seem boring to a lot of people, but it isn’t. Most businesses see insurance as a necessary evil to use to avoid taking risks or making a loss. At Alleviate Risk, we believe insurance should actually be the last line of defence for a business – part of a much broader strategy to manage risk.

Any entrepreneur will tell you that growing a successful business always includes some measure of risk. Alleviate Risk is about understanding the risks that are unique to each of their clients and working with them so that it does not impede progress, growth or ambition.

The thing you have to remember is every business, and every entrepreneur, needs insurance, but not every insurer is willing to work with every business. Most insurers avoid working with people who are really pushing the envelope, because it is too hard or too much work to understand and insure against unfamiliar risks, but these are the businesses I love working with.

I really enjoy getting to know my clients and their businesses on a personal level and the best part of what I do is watching a client achieve remarkable things, and knowing that I have contributed, in some small way, to their success.

Q: So, what makes Alleviate Risk different to the rest?

Morgan: Most insurance brokers think of their role in terms of protecting a client’s bottom line and insurance policies are how they defend it. They focus on having the best reaction to risk. It’s a mainstream way of understanding how business works and it suits mainstream businesses – there’s nothing wrong with that. However, for my clients, I like to use insurance as a last resort – which it is! Nobody wants things to go wrong. Nobody wants to make a claim.

People often think that when something goes wrong and triggers an insurance claim, it can be traced back to a single cause. That’s not actually the case. Each ‘cause’ is essentially all of their ‘ducks lining up’ in a way that they didn’t want (or plan) them to. When that happens, things go pear-shaped. For me to be the best insurance broker I can be, it means:

  1. Understanding the risks faced by clients on a day-to-day basis, which includes economic, financial, legislative, environmental, professional and even online risks
  2. Advising my clients on how to prevent the ‘ducks’ from lining up in a detrimental way
  3. Ensuring they get the best outcome if this happens.

Understanding risk and probability is often counter-intuitive. Business intuition is great, but it often means an entrepreneur can focus too heavily on the things they already know and can control and not pay enough attention to possible sources of risk. The cognitive reasons for this bias are really interesting and something we can talk about later.

Q: What does it mean for clients who have difficulty transacting with mainstream insurers, when you can get them the right insurance cover?

Morgan: Well as an example, for some of my clients who work in adventure sports or in conflict zones, not being able to get insurance not only puts a cap on their ambitions and growth potential, but it can even prevent them from doing business at all.

When I can get them the cover they need for what they want to do, they’re free to seize more of the opportunities that will allow them to succeed. Their insurance cover stops being a limiting factor and instead becomes an enabling factor: a soft place to land that doesn’t hinder their passion, drive or creativity.

Q: And what about Alleviate Risk – how did it all start? And have you applied this ethos in your own business?

Morgan: I worked as a financial adviser with Suncorp for several years and things were going really well. However, our entire division was downsized when there was a change in CEO in 2003. So, in 2004, a colleague and I founded our own commercial insurance brokerage.

We worked together and had a lot of success over the next 11 years, but eventually we each wanted to achieve different things in business. We parted ways about 3 years ago, after which I founded Alleviate Risk and things have been going from strength to strength ever since.

Was there a risk in starting my own business? Sure. But, as I said earlier, you can’t grow without taking any risks. When I first started Alleviate Risk, I took a lot of financial risks, investing in capable staff, corporate branding, a new premises and a range of professional development activities. But these were all measured risks which provided many opportunities for growth, both in business and personally, over the years.

Since then, we have been through some tough times and some not so tough times, but on balance, every risk has paid off. Some people see risk as something to avoid, but I see risk as opportunity – provided it is managed properly.

Q: You mentioned that you have participated in a range of professional development activities. Has your constant study and self-development been a part of your success?

Morgan: I definitely feel like I have learnt and grown an incredible amount over the past 10 years. After studying a Graduate Certificate in Business Administration at QUT, I went on to complete a Master of Business Administration in 2012, majoring in Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Innovation. This study gave me with both the knowledge and skills to develop innovative strategies, in order to help businesses survive and thrive in an increasingly complex environment.

Also, I am currently undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate in the Psychology of Risk and Decision Making through ACU, and so far, I am loving it. Yes, it has taken a lot of effort and some people (including my wife) have asked why I would want to do all of that extra work while running a business.

I guess it’s just in my nature: never standing still, always learning new skills and looking for a better way to do things. I’m not the type of person to get into a routine and then be happy just plodding along. Solving the same problem in the same way over and over – that’s boring. That’s why I love the challenge of finding cover for hard-to-place risks and discovering ways to keep those pesky ‘ducks’ apart!

Q: What is it that you love so much about the study you are doing now?

Morgan: Something I have been thinking a lot about recently is cognitive ease, which we touched on earlier a little. It’s the idea that when you ask someone to think about things they are familiar with or things that are easy to understand, then they’ll perceive those things as more true.

However, when you ask them to engage with things that take a lot of thought, or are new and/or obscure, they are predisposed to see those things as less relevant or true. You can see how this relates to insurance, which is all about working with elements that are hard to predict or hard to detect.

The reason this interests me so much is that I always knew ‘cognitive ease’ existed, but I never knew the name for it or the science behind it. I came across it while reading the famous book Thinking, Fast And Slow, which you might also have read.

The most amazing part is that the section of a person’s brain that makes decisions is excessively lazy. It will usually just navigate towards the path of most familiarity and least resistance. It’s the same way that a lot of businesses bring risk into their systems by always choosing a familiar process.

They don’t actually stop to consider what better options there may be. The human function for processing risk is quite fascinating and I firmly believe that if you stay in the same place for too long, the world will simply overtake you and leave you behind.

So my role in helping clients avoid making claims is literally challenging their existing thought processes, biases, assumptions and attitudes, to come up with a better way. That’s what Alleviate Risk stands for, and when you think about insurance this way, it’s not boring at all.

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