To Judge a Decision, Ignore the Outcome and Focus on the Process

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

A thought experiment: Imagine for a moment that you have to partner up with a colleague for a new project at work. You have your choice of two people, both of whom you’ve witnessed in action before: On their last assignment, Person A was thoughtful, methodical, and considered each option before formulating a game plan, while Person B was sloppier, hastier, and overall didn’t seem to care as much about how things turned out.

A no-brainer, right? You go with Person A. But what if, purely by luck, Person B’s final product actually turned out better? Odds are, you’d switch your loyalty, choosing the person with the more haphazard process but the stronger, if coincidental, end result. As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino recently explained in Harvard Business Review, it’s an effect that psychologists call “outcome bias” — when we judge a decision, we tend to ignore intentions and focus on the upshot.

In the workplace, that often translates to careful decision-makers being overlooked in favor of employees who happen to have a stroke of good fortune. Outcome bias “affect[s] how people reward and punish others as well as whether they want to interact with these individuals in the future,” Gino wrote. In a recent study that Gino co-authored, “participants rewarded with monetary bonuses the selfish partner they had been assigned to work with because the outcome of this person’s decision was good, but they did not award a bonus to the well-intentioned partner whose decision led to a poor outcome. And when participants had to decide whom to work with on a follow-up task, they preferred the selfish partner over the well-intentioned one.” (One glaring exception to the rule: When we’re evaluating ourselves, we put more weight on our own good intentions, regardless of how things end up.)

In the study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Gino and her colleagues investigated ways to counteract this bias. One effective strategy, they discovered, is to avoid side-by-side comparisons — Person A may be the underdog, but they’ll come off as a more desirable partner when they’re evaluated separately from Person B. Another is to present the options without the outcomes — with only half the story, the choice may a more accurate reflection of each person’s abilities.

“It is easy to celebrate or lament a particular decision or action based on how it turns out,” Gino wrote. “But it is important to remember that the process that led to the outcome, including the decision maker’s initial intentions, deserve to be taken into account.” The means, in other words, are often more important than the end, even if they often go ignored. The trick is refocusing our attention to bring them into the spotlight.