Single action bias and HR

In response to uncertain and risky situations, humans have a tendency to focus and simplify their decision making. Individuals responding to a threat are likely to rely on one action, even when it provides only incremental protection or risk reduction and may not be the most effective option.

People often take no further action, presumably because the first one succeeded in reducing their feeling of worry or vulnerability. I’ve seen this happen. This phenomenon is, apparently, called the single action bias Source

(please note I can only find one reference to this, so do your own research if you’d like it to form the basis of your next big life/work decision).

I spent half a day this week taking some colleagues through what I called an ‘Introduction to an Introduction to OD’. We covered some of the intent, some of the terminology and a couple of useful models for helping understand culture and organisations. The most important thing for me to convey was probably the sense of interdependency between different elements of an organisation. If you change an element in isolation it has often unanticipated ramifications. If you fail to think of the system when making a change you will be successful only if lucky.

If you ask someone what change they would like to see in an organisation – and ask them to think what they’d need to do to make that change happen – then one of two things tends to emerge

– they go high level (or vague) with no further support for their position and often stop slightly defeated (‘the culture just needs to change’)

– they go low level (‘we’ll change the process and then people will change their behaviour’)

Their answers often amount to ‘we will do x and y’. Even for desired significant organisational change people often identify just a couple of things to change (often structure or a process) and then stop.

I can understand why.

When you are attempting something significant, maybe something that takes some bravery to deliver, it is easy to think about that one tricky thing is possibly more than can be reasonably expected of you. That bold step can be hard to contemplate in itself.

However it’s rare that anything succeeds in isolation and it’s rare that the thing you change is likely to be the only thing that needs to change to bring improvement. Indeed changing anything in isolation of the broader leadership or environment is often superficial or doomed to fail due to social pressure and expectation trumping your process change.

So keep asking ‘And what else would need to change?’.

Keep asking until you are sick of it.

Keep asking until you have a plan that covers as many elements of the organisation’s make up as possible.

A series of interdependent and supportive moves. A plan so wide ranging that it can’t help but succeed. That’s what you need – not one single action, but the much tougher one coordinated plan.

3 thoughts on “Single action bias and HR

  1. Great article! I’ve been talking about this issue recently, and this helps clarify my thoughts a lot more.

    I see so many applications of your approach, and so many examples of how the field of HR has tended towards either of the gut reactions you’ve identified.

    In my work, we build a lot of journey maps to visualize the decision-making process or the customer purchase process. This could be helpful for HR as well – I’ve been taking this approach to addressing diversity and inclusion through each step of the employee lifecycle, and it has been very useful for me.

    Also, below are some sources that mention the single action bias, if anyone’s interested. There is also a bias towards action in general, which has a whole other set of sources I’m happy to provide : )

    This is the chapter/academic paper referenced in the link you provide above.
    Weber, E. U. (1997). Perception and expectation of climate change: Precondition for economic and technological adaptation. In M. Bazerman, D. Messick, A. Tenbrunsel & K. Wade-Benzoni (Eds.), Psychological and Ethical Perspectives to Environmental and Ethical Issues in Management (pp. 314-341). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Here are all the scientific sources that discuss the paper immediately above, in case anyone wants to learn more:

    Another interesting related paper:


  2. Ah, David, it’s like you’re reading my mind!
    A very timely post given some things I’m speaking to senior management about.


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