Repetition is important to leadership because of cognitive bias

Cognitive biases are a great tool for understanding human behaviour, particularly our more irrational behaviours, and although the meme is in danger of getting overdone I continue to find new value in the concept.

Today it is in the bias ‘cognitive ease’ and how it explains why repetition is important for leadership. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE in the 1980s and 1990s is famously a big advocate of repeating key messages. In an interview with Alastair Campbell he said “You have to talk about vision constantly, basically to the point of gagging. There were times I talked about the company’s direction so many times in one day that I was completely sick of hearing it myself.”.

Aside from the observation that effective constant repetition is a rare talent (although learnable) the interesting question here is ‘why is it so important?’.

I had assumed that repetition works because it cements memories. The more times someone hears something the more likely they are to remember it and the more likely it is to subconsciously help with decision making.

I’m sure that’s true, but there’s something else too, and that is the concept of ‘cognitive ease’. We are drawn towards and believe more in things that are more familiar because they are less taxing on the mind. Conversely we shy away from that which is hard to understand.

Strategies which are constantly repeated become more familiar and hence more believed and accepted.