The Hidden Bias that Trips Leaders Up

Decision biases can negatively affect even the best church or business leader. Wikipedia lists almost 200 social, memory, or cognitive biases (I had to stop reading the list to keep from getting depressed). However, I’ve experienced one that I believe often trips leaders up. It’s called the confirmation bias. It’s a thinking bias that looks for information that supports our preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions. As a result, we spotlight only the information that supports the decision we want to make, to the neglect of other information we need in order to make the best decision. With Google, we can easily search out and find information that confirms almost any belief or decision. And, research tells us that the confirmation bias is strongest in the religious arena. So, how can leaders counter the confirmation bias?

The word Bias and a man riding an arrow over it to symbolize overcoming favoritism, racism, unequal treatment or other form of unfair discrimination

Let’s say you are faced with a decision about whether or not to start a significant new ministry that you really, really want to start. How can you minimize the temptation to yield to the confirmation bias and avoid a wrong decision?

In Acts 16 the Apostle Paul gives us some clues from his second missionary journey. He needed to make a decision about the direction he and his team would travel, north, south or west. The four inputs below guided his decision making and can help us leaders minimize the confirmation bias.

Input 1: Subjective inner witness.

This input refers to what we sense in our heart… God’s leading, a peace, a pull toward a certain direction, that feeling of rightness after we pray over an issue. Paul initially planned to take his journey south but the Bible says the Spirit kept him from going that direction. He then planned to go north. Again, the Spirit kept him from going that direction. Some scholars believe these closed doors point to a subjective inner witness in Paul’s heart. In both cases he may have simply felt a sense in his heart not to proceed. One caution on this one, though. Never make a significant decision based simply on how you feel. Feelings can be fickle. 

Input 2: Circumstances.

In Paul’s case, another possible reason scholars suggest for the two closed doors was Paul’s health. Sickness may have kept him from taking those routes. Luke, a doctor himself, joined the missionary party halfway through this journey which may clue us to this reason for the closed doors. God will use circumstances, both closed doors and open doors to direct us to His will and avoid the confirmation bias. When God closes doors, don’t force open another one. God often uses circumstances to say No or to say Go.

Input 3: Mental reflection.

This input refers to using your mind to think through your decision by collecting data and comparing options. Paul certainly must have thought about the closed doors. He used his mind to reflect over and think about what God was saying by keeping him from going in directions in which he initially thought he should go. So, analysis and data collection are important, but even in those cases we can cook the books by only collecting information that confirms what we want to do.

Input 4: Collaboration

Collaboration means that you invite wise people into your life who will tell you the truth to help you weigh your options. Although we think we want to hear the truth, often we really only want reassurance that we are making the right decision. Recall some American Idol contestants who sung horribly, yet would argue with the judges who told them the truth, that they sung horribly. With significant decisions, we need objectivity from others. In Paul’s case he had Silas, Timothy, and Luke with whom to dialogue.

The term devil’s advocate comes from a practice no longer used in the Catholic church. When an individual was up for canonization (to be made a saint) the church would appoint someone to argue against sainthood (the devil’s advocate). The practice ended in 1983 and since then canonization has occurred 20 times faster than in the earlier 20th century. So, perhaps you need to ask someone to be a graceful devil’s advocate to help you think of reasons why the decisions you want to make may not work. Think, ‘constructive disagreement,’ as Chip and Dan Heath write about in their book Decisive (a very good read). 

So, every leader must deal with the confirmation bias in decision making. The next next time you must make a weighty decision, consider this four inputs to minimize this bias.

What has helped you counter this bias?

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4 Questions to Ask when you Face Conflict

Everybody faces conflict. It’s nothing new. From the cosmic conflict between Lucifer and God before creation to the conflicts in the early church to the conflicts Jesus often faced with the Jewish legalists, it’s a given in life. Conflict is not sin in itself, but sin can cause it and we can sin in how we respond to it. Wise leaders, however, know how to manage conflict when it comes. 4 good questions arise from Acts 15 in the account of the early church’s conflict with those who believed that non-Jews (Gentiles) could become Christians, but only after they first became Jews.

Choose to Resolve or Continue Conflicts - Conflict Resolution

4 good questions to ask when you face conflict:

If the early church had not resolved the conflict with the Judaizers, the results could have been disastrous. In a similar way, when conflict arises in our churches, unless we wisely resolve them, we can lose momentum, people, and resources.

Question 1: The conviction question. Is the conflict you are facing a matter of deep conviction that you can’t resolve through personal prayer and processing?

In the early church’s case, the issue of salvation (was it Jesus plus works or Jesus plus nothing) was a significant issue. It could not be overlooked. Paul and Barnabas had to deal with it.

Many issues are simply issues of personal preference, hurt feelings, or simple misunderstandings that we can pray through and move on. We don’t need to confront every person over every issue. However, some issues are too significant to overlook.

I suggest these five thresholds that can help you determine if you need to take it further than prayer and personal processing.

  1. The issue is seriously dishonoring Christ. In some sense God’s reputation is being dishonored or damaged. In the Judaizers case it was well within this threshold.
  2. This issue is damaging your relationship with that person. Were you not to try to resolve the issue, it could seriously hurt and undermine your relationship with that person.
  3. The issue is hurting others involved.
  4. The issue is causing hurt to the offender.
  5. You just can’t shake it through prayer.

If the issue meets one of these thresholds, then take it further.

Question 2: The counsel question. Do I need a third party to help?

In Matthew 18.15-18, Jesus says to first go to the person one-on-one if you have a conflict with someone. Usually that’s the proper procedure. But sometimes I believe it’s appropriate to bring in a wise third party even before you do that.

Paul and Barnabas felt it necessary to go to Jerusalem to include the elders and apostles there for them to weigh in on this issue. They needed wisdom.

Sometimes we do need to include the counsel of others even before we escalate a conflict to a one-on-one conversation. What might justify doing that?

  1. You need wisdom from an objective third party to help you discern it you really need to confront the other party.
  2. You need wisdom to know how to confront the other party.
  3. You need to be encouraged to confront the other party and a wise person can give you the confidence to take that step.

If you do bring in a third party, check your motives. Make sure you’re not doing this to make the other party look bad or to win the person you’re seeking counsel from over to your side.

Question 3: The compromise question. Do I need to defer in some way in this conflict?

Often the issue is not so much about what the other person did to you, but about your role in the conflict. Sometimes we should defer, yield, or let go of the issue. Compromise never means watering down truth or your convictions. Neither does not mean you are weak.

In the case facing the early church, the Judaizers had to give up their wrong notion that becoming a follower of Jesus required that a person had to become a Jew first. And the Gentile believers had to yield to some of their Jewish Christian brothers on some dietary issues that could have a caused a rift in their relationships with them.

A sign of a mature follower of Jesus is loving compromise.

Question 4: The clarity issue. Have I clarified the issue?

Often conflicts get so muddied that both parties loose sight of the real issue. The conflict reflects something deeper or even something not related to the ‘presenting’ issue.

The early church clearly clarified their issue by appealing to history, to the facts, and to God’s Word. They dialogued, listened to each other, and even recorded in a letter what they had resolved.

When they clarified the issue they presented a united front, avoided a split, and encouraged each other. When we truly resolve conflict in the church, everybody feels a sense of relief, just like the early church did.

Some when you deal with conflict, make sure you clarify the real issue.

These four questions based on how the early church resolved a conflict can guide leaders toward successful conflict resolution in their churches.

What else has helped you resolve conflict in your church?

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When Plans Get Interrupted, What Should You Do?

What do you do when your plans get interrupted? Fume…fuss…cuss? I tend to fume. I recall two experiences that interrupted my well laid-out plans. In the process, I also learned a few important life lessons.

Concept of difficulty in business with broken stairs

Interruption #1

I was taking a voice-over class in Chicago a few years ago and I had parked in the same building where the class was held. The valet kept the keys and after the class (later that night), I was to retrieve my keys from the security guard and drive home.

Except this week.

The guard couldn’t find my keys. She called the boss and while he drove back to the building, I had some time to kill. For the next while, I was able to have a meaningful conversation with Faith (the guard) about having a relationship with Jesus. She didn’t trust Christ, but I believe her heart opened a bit. Eventually, the boss found my key and I made it home.

One redeemed interruption.

Interruption #2.

Two days later I prepared for my quarterly overnight planning retreat at a retreat center a few miles west of my home. Just before I left, I opened my Mac to send an email. When I opened the lid … a black screen stared back. This had happened two weeks prior and I thought is was a one-time glitch.

Apparently not.

Fortunately, the first time it happened one of our staff was able to perform a convoluted fix because my re-booting, removing the battery, and screaming at my Mac didn’t work. But, he was now out-of-town. I checked with another staffer and he said he thought he could fix it. He did. By the time he fixed it, though, I had lost a half-day of my retreat. Plus, I had lost the file of my current sermon.

On my drive to the retreat center, I faced a choice, I could fume or pray. I choose the latter. Amazingly, that focused prayer time centered me and prepared my heart for the retreat, even though a train stopped me on the way there and when I arrived the place was locked.

Another interruption redeemed.

Here are the 3 lessons I learned from those interruptions.

  1. Life can seem like a series of interruptions punctuated by a few plans that get accomplished. 

  2. When interrupted, we all choose how we will respond.

  3. When we respond with God’s grace, He will redeem even the most frustrating interruptions for His glory and our benefit.

How did you respond the last time you were interrupted?

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5 Church Growth Essentials from the Apostle Paul

When I was in seminary Church Growth 101 was a required course. I took interest in the whole field and became a student of church growth. I read a pile of books and attended most of the big church growth conferences. Some of the principles I’ve applied have worked. And some have failed royally. When we look at the early church, though, obviously they did something right. They grew exponentially. In this post I suggest 5 church growth essentials from the Apostle Paul that we see from his first missionary journey.

Large group of people in the form of the church. Flashmob, isolated, white background.

Church Growth 101 from the Apostle Paul

First, a bit of background. At this point in the early church, described in Acts 13-14, we see three significant movements: the main church leader moving to Paul from Peter, the target group for evangelism shifting from primarily Jewish to Gentile, and a move from a rural focus to an urban focus. Paul and Barnabas visited six cities on this first missionary journey.

Principle 1: Rely on the Holy Spirit.

In these two chapters we see the obvious work of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, while not dismissing good leadership, thorough strategic planning, and great outreach events, only God by His Spirit grows the church (Col. 2.19, 1 Cor. 3.7). In chapter 13 we see the work of the Holy Spirit in several ways.

  1. He was involved in the selection of Paul and Barnabas to go on this missionary journey (13.2).
  2. He planted in their hearts the desire to go (13.4).
  3. He gave Paul great courage to confront a wizard who wasn’t too happy that Paul was evangelizing his boss (13.6-12)

So, if you want to see your church grow, make sure the Holy Spirit is guiding and directing your plans and decisions.

Principle 2: Evangelize through your most natural relationships.

When Paul would enter a city, he would make a beeline to the synagogue. Why? Because he was a Jew and Jews would be there. Their common Jewishness bound them together. It was also natural for him to go there first, because the Jews were already religiously minded and Paul could easily talk about what was common between them, the Old Testament scriptures, prophecy, and the longed for Messiah.

Some of the most fruitful ways to grow the church is to find those most open to the gospel, often those already in our circle of relationships.

Principle 3: Stay flexible in your approach.

Paul tailored his evangelism to the group he was with. His method of operation with the Jews was to go to the synagogue and start with the Old Testament.

However, with the Gentiles who had no Jewish reference frame, he took a different approach. In one very pagan city they visited on this missionary journey, they healed a crippled boy (14.8-18). The word spread. A crowd gathered. And because of a Greek legend, they believed that Paul and Barnabas were the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes.

50 years prior a Latin poet had written about a local legend that Zeus and Hermes, disguised as mortals, had once visited the hill country near this city and they weren’t given hospitality. Thus, Zeus and Hermes destroyed the homes of those who refused hospitality. Now, the people thought that Zeus and Hermes had revisited them again (because of the miracle Paul and Barnabas had done) and wanted to avoid a similar fate. So they responded with wild fanaticism by offering sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas in order to appease the Greek gods.

Paul was shocked. Yet, he did not quote the Old Testament to them, as he did to the Jews. He appealed to what they knew, nature and natural law. He spoke of God being the God of creation and the general favor he shows everyone through the rain he provides that waters mankind’s crops.

Paul flexed his approach toward the particular people he was evangelizing. With the Jews he used one approach and with the Gentiles another.

It behooves church leaders to know their communities and to use flexible approaches rather than cookie cutter methods we might learn in a book or at a conference.

Principle 4: Deepen your spiritual roots.

Growing a church is not an either-or proposition, evangelism or discipleship. It is both-and. Paul certainly shared the Gospel. But in these two chapters he’s also encouraging believers to send their roots deep in the Lord. In fact, when the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on this trip, the church as practicing two spiritual disciplines: prayer and fasting.

Later Paul encouraged them to continue in the grace of God and encouraged them to remain true to the faith. He was challenging them toward spiritual formation.

I recently learned a great insight about spiritual formation.

Everybody IS being spiritually formed. It’s just a matter of whether or not it is intentional or haphazard. 

Intentional spiritual formation means that we intentionally seek, through spiritual disciplines, to be formed in the image of Jesus.

Unintentional spiritual formation means that we are being passively shaped by the experiences, circumstances, and people around us. Such spiritual formation yields little good fruit and potentially, bad fruit.

So, growing a church requires that leaders give attention and intention to spiritual formation.

Principle 5: Don’t bend to resistance to the Gospel.

Throughout history, when the Gospel changed lives, resistance was sure to follow. Paul repeatedly faced resistance to his work, while at the same time many responded positively to the Gospel. In chapter 13.49-50, many came to faith while at the same time those in opposition began a smear campaign against Paul. Did he and Barnabas leave town? No, they spent considerable time there.

In another city (15.1-2) the people stoned Paul and left him for dead. Fortunately, he didn’t die. Did he leave town? No. The Scriptures say that he went back into that very town.

So, when you see God bless your church with growth, don’t be surprised to experience resistance as well, sometimes even from within.

God wants the Church to grow. He wants your church to grow. And He will grow His church as we apply biblical church growth principles we see in the book of Acts.

What other biblical church growth principles should we add to this list?

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Brokenness in a Pastor’s Life

Many issues can keep a church from growing and hinder a pastor’s effectiveness. They include circumstances beyond his control (demographics or a location that hinders growth), an uncooperative board (they say No to his vision), or even family issues (a chronically ill child who requires an inordinate amount of energy). These experiences can bring painful brokenness to a pastor’s heart. And, we seldom see any immediate benefit from our brokenness. But could God use it in our lives? I believe so.

broken heart

Brokenness has touched my life in the two places where it hurts the most: my family (a child chronically ill for 25 years and a child who rebelled for many years) and my ministry (many dreams not fulfilled).

Yet, I’ve taken comfort when Jesus explained that brokenness must precede fruit bearing.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12.24)

And nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard captures the essence of Jesus’ words when he wrote these words.

“God creates everything out of nothing—and everything God is to use he first reduces to nothing.”[1]

Also, Richard Foster, one of today’s most influential voices on spiritual formation, describes one of the greatest benefits from brokenness. He calls it the “crucifixion of the will” and says it brings “freedom from the everlasting burden of always having to get our own way.”[2] Always having to get our own way is the antithesis of the other-centered life Jesus modeled for us.

As I enter the sixth decade of my life and reflect over the brokenness I’ve faced as a pastor, I’m beginning to see its great value. It still hurts and I’d prefer not to face it. Yet, I’m experiencing the fruit of brokenness: inner peace, joy, and a purpose that supersedes ‘ministry success.’

How has God used brokenness in your life and ministry?

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References:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard, ed. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 245.

[2] Richard Foster, Prayer (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 55.