Why we do what we do: Why do we Shoot the Messenger? – Backfire Effect

At some time, everyone that works in data has had to deal with the following scenario:

You run a test or you do an analysis that shows that a member of management has been claiming something or pushing something that is clearly wrong. You present the data, and then they push back even harder saying that you just don’t understand or there must be more to the story. You dive back in, find more and more supporting data, you make charts and breakdowns and present them again. This time instead of just pushing back your recipient start attacking you and everything you do. They may do it overtly or behind the scenes, but they now view you as a problem and a threat. They never change their view of your original point, and now they distrust you and are looking for opportunities to attack your work.

This is a way too common outcome in the business world, and one that is not actually limited to the use of data. What you are experiencing is the Backfire Effect, or the fact that people become stronger in their beliefs when presented with evidence that directly contradicts them.

So why does this happen? Why is the data you are clearly presenting, data that multiple others agree with and buy into not having its desired effect? It is because you have started to attack their world view. Every person you ever work with believes that they do superior work, believes that they make a large impact to the business, and that they hold a deep understanding and correct view of how things work. When you present direct evidence against this, you are not actually attacking the statement, but their self-perception, which creates a level of cognitive dissonance, resulting in an ad hominem attack on the messenger, and a blind ignorance of the evidence.

Like most psychological biases the key is to set the stage for success prior to action, not after. You may not be able to force rationality into individuals or organizations, but you can certainly push discipline. Define rules of action before you start and task, work to get agreement on what will define success, and what follow up action should and will be. Often times these conversations are pushed, ignored, or dismissed, but it is up to you as the one who will ultimately be sharing the news to force this as a priority of a conversation.

No one you work with will want to talk about how you make a decision; they will want to talk about their great idea for a test, or for a group to target to, or their amazing advertising campaign. They have already decided what they want, why it is great, and what you will present in the end. If you only allow or enter the conversation at this point, you role in their subconscious mind is simply to validate their opinion. The job of those that work in data is to never give into this path, no matter how easy it is or how it may help us politically. You can not view success ever as how many actions you fulfill, but instead the value of the ones that you fulfill. The instant you allow for quantity of action to take precedence over quality of outcomes, you are setting yourself and others up for this type of failure. It is instead to be the holders of discipline, to be the ones that help create opportunities to find out the faults in these ideas, to not be the ones to validate held world views.

This is also why changing the conversation about what it means to be “right” and “wrong” is so important. If you shape each conversation to talk about the amazing outcomes of being “wrong”, of going in a not previously encouraged direction and about the impact to the business, you are opening the door for individuals to not have their world view attacked. If you allow others to understand that they have impacted the business, and that they have succeeded in their end goal of finding out people cases where they are wrong, you have enabled them to not fall into the Backfire Effect. Changing the conversation away from the faults of one idea and towards the value of different options and why choosing this action allows you to not attack someone’s world view and instead help them look good by giving them the tools to find an outcome, not just an input to a failed system. It is important that you understand deeply why you need to do this, what the traps are, and what the right way to frame that conversation is, but if you are willing to do the ground work you can achieve amazing results.

One of the defining characteristics of organizations who get value from their data versus those that don’t is that the leaders who manage their data focus on the leading conversation, not on the stories they can tell after their analysis. This problem is only exasperated by egos and by the fact that so much of the material and talk in the industry is filled with justifications for those that do not want to address the real issues at hand. Much of the data marketplace, from managers to agencies, is filled with those that would come up with creative ways to tell people exactly what they want to hear and to come up with a story that shows impact, even if there is no factual basis for that claim. There are articles, speakers, and “experts” throughout out who have mastered the art of sounding intelligent without actually adding anything new or functional to the organizations of which they address. There are many groups who have their own biases in believing their value is presented, just like any other group, because they focus simply on the actions some takes or on their ability to make a recommendation. your key responsibility is to focus the same skills and control the message in the same way towards that which will actually drive value for the organization, not that which sounds good but is hollow. It is vital that from day one and onwards that leaders control and help shape the conversation instead of responding continuously to requests. Successful organizations define actions and successes, focus on discipline, and prepare for action before the data, not after.

There is no more true statement then: “Success and failure is determined before you act, not after.”

There is zero chance of you avoiding push-back if you fail to do the dirty work of setting the stage properly. If you create an environment where you don’t focus on the idea but instead on the discovery, on the outcome and not the input, and work with groups to add value to their ideas instead of facilitate their ideas, you will find amazing results achieved throughout the organization. Ultimately you need to be agnostic about what wins and loses, and instead focus on how people arrive at a decision and if it answers the correct business question. Shy away from this aspect of the job and you face the challenge of dealing with the backfire effect or finding ways to justify actions you rationally know are not valuable.

If you want to avoid painful confrontations, you will always have two options. Option one is the easier one, convince yourself that presenting data that supports people politically or that just getting someone to act is somehow providing value. In this option you will never be delivering news people don’t want to hear. The second option is to focus on the painful disciplines prior to actions and to deal with some discomfort before you get too far and stay away from anyone’s ego. In this you will have to deal with some discomfort, but you will be able to make a true and meaningful impact to your organization. Other departments, executives, and even your own management will never be able to make this decision for you, this decision is a personal one and one that you either choose to make, or one that is chosen for you.


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