In business research, we often build up theories about what works and what doesn’t work based on evidence that’s correlated, but not causal. We pick an outcome—successful performance, say—and incorrectly identifying what caused that outcome. This is a major flaw in our work, as my colleague Phil Rosenzweig has pointed out in his work on the “halo effect.”
In organizations, there’s a similar phenomenon, which I’ll call “superstitious learning.” Superstitious learning takes place when the connection between the cause of an action and the outcomes experienced aren’t clear, or are misattributed. For example, consider a manager in a company that fortuitously entered a growing market just at the right moment. This manager appears successful and is rewarded with several promotions into the senior ranks. Obviously, the guy must know what he’s doing, because he has always experienced success, right? Actually, no—one of the least fair realities of modern business is that it is entirely possible to have good outcomes without being particularly skillful (why else would Dilbert be so popular?). Often, the only antidote to everyone thinking the person is golden is to have some kind of setback take place.
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Publication/Copyright: Harvard Business Review