Commitment and Consistency

I recently made a commitment to share something new with my team at work - once a week - for the 6 weeks that were left leading up to Christmas. Whilst not all of them are applicable outside of the team, I thought that I may as well cross-post some of them, as I haven't shared anything for a while here either.

So here's a post about the commitment itself (week 2 of my original challenge). It has been edited slightly to make more sense in this context.

I thought that this week I'd get a bit less technical and talk a little bit about commitment, consistency and how we can exploit our silly meat-space brains to make ourselves more productive.

Some of you may have been wondering why, when I started this last week, I sent out a message to the whole team announcing what I was doing when I could have just as easily only told [manager], or done it without saying anything at all. Well, I intentionally announced my plan to everyone for a simple reason: it will make me more likely to achieve my goal.

I've never studied psychology, but I love reading about experiments that show how irrational and illogical our behaviour as humans actually is. A while ago, I read an interesting book called Influence which aims to identify some of the underlying principles of how and why we're influenced to do things. One of these principles is consistency, and the book introduces it quite succinctly:

Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.

On the face of it, this seems pretty illogical. Why would we not just change our mind when given new evidence? The desire to stay consistent seems to stem from a powerful social pressure, as "inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait". We inherently dislike people who we see as 'two-faced' or unreliable. If you've been burned by somebody breaking a promise, you're not very likely to trust them again in the future, and for good reason.

Knowing that people have a strong desire to stay consistent - even in the face of contradicting evidence - many people and companies have learn to exploit this for a profit. Influence gives the example of toy companies under stocking products for Christmas so that parents have to make good on their promises in the January slump. Those smart bastards - they figured out that they key to enforcing this consistency is commitment.

If I can get you to make a commitment (this is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment.

Perhaps particularly relevant right now is an example of how a simple commitment - not even a promise - can also have a huge change in outcome. Research by Anthony Greenwald et al (1987) showed that it was possible to increase the number of people voting in an election just by calling people up and asking them to predict if they were going to vote or not. Those that predicted they would vote were significantly more likely to actually vote than those who didn't (or weren't called).

The good news is that if we know that we're susceptible to this exploitation we get two tangible benefits:

  1. We can design our processes to discount this bias where possible
  2. We can use the same techniques to make ourselves achieve something hard

So are we taking advantages of these? An example of #1 is the interview process here at Uber. [Interviewers at Uber] have noticed that [they're] required to put in a scorecard and give a thumbs up/down to a candidate before attending the debrief. This was a very conscious decision to try and ensure that people bring their real opinions to the debrief rather than succumbing to 'group think'. If you saw issues with a candidate but everyone who spoke before you in the debrief was a 'strong yes', you would be naturally inclined to hide your reservations. By 'going on the record' and stating your choice up front, you're much more likely to give your true feedback.

By now, of course, you realise that me sending [this email] out to everyone was a direct attempt to exploit my own weakness for consistency by intentionally going on the record - and so far it seems to be working.

So how else can we use this to our advantage as a [team of engineers]? I think that we need to set more goals and, dare I say it, deadlines. The nature of our work means that we're often disconnected from the consumers and as a consequence, we don't seem to set many goals for ourselves, or at least ones which we write down and broadcast.

Too many and too tight goals/deadlines can induce stress, but not having any means that we also don't have the sense of achievement when we get things done. As an example, I believe that [colleague] and I got more done in the week he was here (and felt really good about it) because we set the goal of 'we'll have it running by Friday' and announced it to the team.

So, if there's something that you really want to get done, I encourage you to try out this technique. Tell the person next to you, tell us all at standup (saying "I'm hoping to get it done by X" is fine, but doesn't count as a commitment!), or send me and email and I'll bug you about it until it's done. Hopefully we can find the right balance as a team and learn to set realistic goals and hold ourselves to them.

And if we do, [manager] will commit to buying us all drinks to celebrate*.

*He didn't commit to anything of the sort, but I'm testing the hypothesis that making a commitment on behalf of somebody else will have a similar outcome.

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