When I was 18, I decided to get my motorbike licence. I booked myself in for the 2 day course, blindly faithful that at the end of it I’d be proudly waving around my little card to freedom. I got to the course pumped and full of confidence… until I dropped the bike. While stationary. With the engine turned off. Oh no.
I picked it up, shook myself off, turned the key and kept on going… straight through a barrier. It was time to go home.
I thought it might be a good idea to buy a motorbike to practice and was recommended a Honda CT aka “postie”; with my new habit of dropping and crashing established, the super resilient red demon seemed like a great fit. After a few weeks of riding around car parks, I passed my test and was ready to move out to the open road.
Before the suggestion of a postie came up, I hadn’t noticed them on the road before but suddenly they were all I could see. In my mind, the population of Sydney posties was growing at an exponential rate but in reality I had developed a deep cognitive bias through my rose-coloured visor. I call it “The Postie Bike Theory”.
Attention and bias
As it turns out, I wasn’t the first person to recognise this anomaly. In 2006, Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky coined the term the “Frequency Illusion” and before him, in 1994, a user on an online discussion board named it the “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon” after hearing the name of the aforementioned German left-wing terrorist organisation twice in 24 hours.
The illusion is created as a consequence of two psychological processes colliding. Selective Attention is our brain’s unconscious attempt to seek out certain stimuli and ignore or devalue others. Confirmation Bias, as Zwicky describes, is our unconscious mind “looking for things that support our hypotheses, disregarding potential counter-evidence”. To put it simply, I was excited about my new ride, my brain chose to focus on posties and my recognition of those extra bikes proved my argument that there were more on the road than ever.
The joy that comes from something new and exciting, like buying a new bike or trying a new sport or learning a new language, is only amplified by the effects of the frequency illusion. We feel happy through what our brains are selecting to see and secure with the confirmation we give ourselves, but what happens when our brains begin to focus on negatively geared stimuli? What if our brains zoom in on the bad and validate our pessimism by ignoring the good?
Patterns in perception
We’ve all heard the phrase “perception is reality” and the cause of perception inaccurately reflecting reality is often a lack of communication. Our brains feel great levels of discomfort when faced with unanswered questions and when we aren’t given the information we need, we create it for ourselves. Although my situation was trivial and fun, the frequency illusion can be destructive when our unconscious becomes focused on things we don’t like.
As humans, our capacity to identify patterns is not only a strength but it also gives us a sense of security. When we bring together Selective Attention and Confirmation Bias, we are unconsciously creating patterns where there aren’t any. If the root of this process collision is a lack of information it can be very dangerous as our hard-wired survival instincts often steer us in negative directions. Our brains assume the worst in the situation, fill in the blanks and spin distrusting stories based on perceived repetition.
At work, if perceived negative intent triggers the frequency illusion, engagement, morale and retention can be greatly affected. Businesses can hire the most cognitively optimistic people out there, but a lack of communication can turn any unconscious mind to skepticism and lead our conscious mind to follow suit.
I worked with Simon for nearly a year and when I met him, he had been with the company for 3 years and was itching for a change. He spoke with his boss and they agreed to plan a transition to an exciting new role in a different team. Since then, he had been getting ready for the day his business cards would change. As the months went on, however, his peers’ performances decreased and some even left the business, ultimately increasing his workload and sending his new title further and further into the distance.
Simon didn’t want to rock the boat by bringing it up. He knew that his boss would get back to him soon about the transition so why be a bother? He held his breath as weeks rolled by but there was no clear path to freedom defined. He began to lose trust and faith, joining the dots about things his boss would say or do. By the time Simon spoke with me, his frequency illusion had created patterns so complex, he had lost confidence and hope. “It’s not going to happen, Nat. What should I do?”
When Simon gave his brain permission to create its own clarity for his unanswered questions, it guessed based on limited information and assumptions of intent. “My boss must be hiding something. He hasn’t raised it because he doesn’t plan to make it happen. He keeps saying I’m invaluable to try and make me feel better about staying in the team”.
In these situations, the only way to accurately join the dots is to ask the person or people who drew the dots to join them. Simon initiated what he anticipated would be a painful conversation with his boss, which ended up shining lights for both of them. His boss had no idea how he had been feeling and he didn’t know what discussions his boss had been having with the future team. Together they sat and carved out plans; not only for the transition but for how to improve communication moving forward.
Preempting the illusion
So how do we make sure our offices don’t become postie parking garages? In companies where transparency is practiced and prioritised, trust is strong and our minds have less reason to wander and wonder; communication is key. It sounds simple but if it was, everyone would be doing it. Some people are confident and fearless in the face of hard conversations but many others are not, so saying “my door is always open” will never solve the issue. Simon struggled to walk through his boss’ “open-door” for a lack of confidence, not for a lack of desire. He desperately wanted to understand what was happening, but it was easier for his shy self to let his brain do the work; easier but far more damaging.
While Simon’s inability to ask the questions he needed answers to was a demonstration of his natural instincts, it also revealed an opportunity for his leader to grow. To successfully build feedback and communication into a company’s culture and prevent assumption fuelled frequency illusions, leaders must initiate creating safe passage for “Simons” to have difficult conversations. By engaging in meaningful, regular and curious conversations with their team members, leaders can know before it’s too late about the potential postie congestion.
1 on 1 meetings are the perfect opportunity to enable and encourage healthy feedback habits. Aside from keeping on top of tasks and projects, leaders can use this time to catalyse valuable communication culture by soliciting, engaging in and acting on information.
- The Invitation — incorporating targeted yet open questions around experiences and mindset gives permission for people to speak their minds. Think about what you need to understand about your team member and use “how”, “what” and “are/is/do” questions to proactively open the door to the answers. “Do you feel good about the team dynamics at the moment?”. “How are you feeling about your progress/goals?”. “What more could I or others be doing to support you?”.
- The Validation — validation doesn’t come from hearing “yes”, it comes from feeling felt. Taking time to actively listen to a team member means dropping defences and engaging with empathy. Regardless of whether we agree with how a team member is feeling or not, their perception is their reality and rebutting or negating their feedback confiscates permission for them to do it again. Recognising their candour is a great way to soothe any discomfort they may be feeling. “So what I’m hearing is XYZ.”. If you need more information, ask for it but make sure to question with genuine curiosity rather than reacting with raw emotion. “I want to make sure I understand clearly. Could you please expand on XYZ?”.
- The Action Plan — collaborating with the team member to plan how to move forward is very empowering, showing them their voice is both heard and valued. It’s important for team members to feel like they have ownership of their feedback and growth, so leaders must make sure to play supportive roles but not be a crutch. While her leader was able to put her mind at ease, Andrea was tasked with providing a framework for the type of communication she needed as well as working with her leader to plan out her career path in the company.
It’s inescapable; our brains have many minds of their own and every leader has a busy road to navigate. Inviting conversations, validating feedback and acting on it triggers our unconscious to again connect the dots but forming positive patterns; “I spoke up and good things happened”. The best defence is a great offence so make sure to close down the carpark before those postie bikes arrive.