Leadership biases: love ‘em or hate ‘em, we all have them.

WHAT ARE BIASES?

Cognitive biases describe the irrational errors in human and leadership decision making.

Our brain absorbs tremendous amounts of information during the day. Tons more than we can handle. Some of this information we consciously think about. But as the conscious part of the brain can only focus on one thing at a time, our brain looks for shortcuts to help us make decisions more efficiently and quickly. Our shortcuts clusters all the data in more manageable chunks so we don’t have to reconsider learning everything every single time.

These mental unconscious shortcuts in fancy jargon are called heuristics.

Unfortunately, these heuristics often fail to produce a correct judgment, and the result is cognitive biases.  These failures may merely lead to misunderstandings, or many times to serious conflicts and bad decisions. Biases affect legal judgments, strategic decisions, team building, trust, performance management, recruitment, friendships – you finish the list.

Most likely everyone reading this is now demonstrating one bias or another. For example, “I have always understood that”.  (Confirmation bias). Or perhaps, “ Rubbish. I am not biased”. (Blind spot bias)

How many biases are there and what are they?

There are at least 150 cognitive biases identified in the literature.

There are four ways we can cluster biases (which might be a bias in itself)

  1. What is important to remember?
  2. How do I handle information overload?
  3. What’s crucial when I have to act rapidly?
  4. How do I know the meaning of something?

And under these of these four groups there is a bunch bias sets:

  1. What is important to remember?
  • We store memories differently depending on how they were first experienced.
  • We reduce events and lists to their key elements.
  • We forget specifics and form generalities.
  • We edit, change and amend some memories after the fact.
  1. How do I handle information overload?
  • We notice things that have been often repeated or a primed in our memory.
  • Weird, unusual more visually important things stand out more than boring unfunny things.
  • We notice when something has changed or is different.
  • We attracted to details that confirm our own existing beliefs.
  • We notice other peoples’ errors and flaws more easily than those in ourselves.
  1. What’s crucial when I must act rapidly?
  • We prefer simple options and complete solutions over complex and ambiguous options.
  • We try to preserve autonomy and group status and avoid irreversible decisions.
  • We tend to complete things we’ve invested time and energy in.
  • We favour the immediate, relatable thing in front of us.
  • We want to make an impact and feel what we do is important.
  1. How do I understand the meaning of something?
  • We tend to find patterns and themes when looking at minimal data.
  • We fill in details from our past history and our stereotypes.
  • We imagine the things and people we know or are fond of, as being better than others.
  • We oversimplify possibilities and numbers to make them easier to handle.
  • We think we know what other people are thinking.

Activity one. Except for those who are bias free try this exercise:

Consider the list above and write down those biases sets that you recognise in yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Activity two.

Now, and this is a little harder, make a note of how each of these biases negatively impacted your leadership in the last few years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHERE DO THESE PESKY LITTLE CRITTERS COME FROM?

The usual suspects:

  • Our primitive brain (still very present I am afraid).
  • Whatever version of mummy and daddy brought you up.
  • Teachers, friends and occasional bad influencers.
  • The culture you were raised in.

Biases exist to make our lives safe and manageable. But since the Miocene epoch when we first began our tribal hunting and gathering, things have got a lot more complicated.  Fight and flight choices then were really obvious, but now they are incredibly subtle. Our biases which were protective then may now cause us some interpersonal hassles. These have been added onto by our own upbringing and culture. So our biases are well cooked and now part of our world view.

This makes very clear the permanence and historical persistence of our biases. The best we can achieve is an increase in the awareness of when we’re being biased and reducing the impact before, during or after.

POPULAR BIASES

I will discuss ten of the more popular biases.

  1. Confirmation bias—this ensures we only look for evidence that confirms what we already think.

This is a whopper bias and is most troublesome and hardest to notice.  We all know what we think we know and don’t believe what we don’t know. Or don’t accept a contradictory view of what we know we know. Cos we know it right?   This is the “I am right (you are wrong)” bias.

Examples in leadership

  • My way or the highway.
  • This is how we will restructure and because I’ve done this before we don’t need to conduct much consultation.
  • Good idea but in my opinion it’s too costly to try now.
  • I’m the HR expert and this is the proper way to do it.
  • My door is always open, unless you annoy me.
  1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Another popular bias that is self-fulfilling. This is about how people perceive a concept or event to be simplistic just because their knowledge about it may be simple or lacking. If you know little about something, the less complicated it may appear. This limits curiosity—people don’t feel the need to further explore a concept, because it seems simplistic to them. This bias can also lead people to think they are smarter than they actually are, because they have reduced a complex idea to a simplistic understanding.  This is the “Don’t bother me with facts” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • I’ve given you the vision, don’t bother me with all the details.
  • Of course I don’t understand this area as well as you but this is what we should do.
  • Keep it simple,
  • We can wrap up this organisational change process in a couple of days.
  • It’s just a personality conflict, it’ll go away after a while.
  • We don’t need to investigate it’s clear who is wrong.
  1. In-group bias. People are more likely to support or believe someone within their own social group than an outsider. This bias tends to remove objectivity from any sort of promotion, selection or hiring process. We tend to favour those we personally know or those who have been recommended  by our friends. This is the in group/out group bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • She will never fit in here because of her background.
  • He is clearly the best candidate he’s been recommended by the CEO of my old company.
  • I know she is the best on paper but I’ve seen his work and it is good.
  • If Patrick recommends him that’s good enough for me.

4. Self-serving bias. This is an assumption that good things happen to us because we conducted ourselves in the right way. Conversely though when bad things happen to us it is not our fault. Circumstances outside our control or what other people did caused the problem.  Consequently we blame outside factors for bad situations rather than taking personal responsibility.  This is the “Dolly did it” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • I had the report done but there was a power blackout and I couldn’t email it.
  • Yes I did that project really well and of course the team helped.
  • It wasn’t me it was…………..
  • [sigh] I can’t help it if………….

5. Availability bias.  Also known as the recency bias. This is the tendency to use the information we can quickly recall when evaluating a topic or idea, even if this information is not most relevant.  We grab onto the most recent data we can most easily recall,  take it as correct, and ignore alternative solutions or opinions.  This is the “Ive seen this before” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • WIth this upcoming merger, I saw a show on TV last night that………
  • Nah, this is clearly bullying. I attended a training program last week and in that they said……….
  • I remember the consultant we used last month recommended in the situations that we …………
  • My wife said that in these conflict situations in her office they tend to…….

6. Fundamental attribution error. This refers to the tendency to attribute someone’s particular behaviours to existing, unfounded stereotypes while attributing our own similar behaviour to external factors.

For instance, when someone on your team is late to an important meeting, you may assume that they are lazy or lacking motivation without considering internal and external factors like an illness or traffic accident that led to the tardiness. However, when you are running late because of a flat tire, you expect others to attribute the error to the external factor (flat tire) rather than your personal behaviour.   This the “They’re lazy, I’m not” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • She’s always late for meetings. (I was late last meeting but you know that was because I was held back by the CEO)
  • Interrupting me like that is harassment. (I know I interrupted two weeks ago but that’s because we were straying off track)
  • Well that team member you selected sure didn’t workout. (My selection last year failed too I know, but that was because their referee lied.)

7. Hindsight bias. This is when people perceive events to be more predictable after they happen. People overestimate their ability to predict an outcome beforehand, even though the information they had at the time would not have led them to the correct outcome. Hindsight bias can lead to overconfidence in one’s ability to predict future outcomes. This is the “I knew that” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • I told you so.
  • I knew Covid was going to be a long term problem.
  • I knew we should’ve consulted more with the unions before that change.
  • I always said he was going to be CEO one day.
  • 8. Pessimism bias. This bias refers to how we are more likely to view everything negatively if we are in a bad mood.  This is the “life sucks” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • This is hopeless. (big sighs)
  • She never does anything properly.
  • What’s the point they never listen anyway.
  • Performance development is a waste of time.

9. The halo effect. This is when we allow our (good or bad) impression of a person, company, or business in one aspect to influence our overall impression of the person or entity. For example, a team member who completes a great project is promoted to a more senior position above their level of competence.

This is the “One Swallow doesn’t make a summer” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • She did that job so well in accounts so I moved her to manager of HR.
  • That senior client complained about him, so I will only let him work with            more junior clients from now on.
  • He is a great foreperson so I’m promoting him to manager.
  • Get it wrong once and you’re out.
  • 10 Status quo bias. The status quo bias refers to the preference to keep things in their current state, while regarding any type of change as bad. This limits your capacity to process or accept change. This is the ‘It won’t work here.” bias.

Examples in leadership:

  • Wot Me worry?
  • CEOs come and go, we will just sit here for awhile.
  • We tried that.
  • These new fangled (Insert new initiative here) never work.
  • In my last company…….
  • I’ve only got two more years to retirement.

Activity Three.

Pick two of the above biases  you recognise in yourself and make some notes about how you might now behave differently in the future.

DELETING YOUR BIASES. (Well reducing their tendency to muck you up too much.)

“We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available.”

                                                                Daniel Kahneman

While there is no loud bell, there are several warning signs that can help us.

  1. Accept biases are real and that you have them.
  2. Decide you will be a better leader if you can reduce their impact.
  3.  Learn as much about biases as you possibly can.
  4. Discard the belief there is only your right and wrong or good and bad.
  5. When you feel you know something for sure, reconsider.
  6. Match the other person’s non-verbal presentation.
  7. Keenly observe the body language of the other person and listen to the response to your message. If it is off in any way at all that may be a sign you are being biased.
  8.  Think critically about each important decision you make as a leader.  Consider there are always factors that can alter the way we see, experience, or recall things.   Explore and take these factors into account.
  9. Challenge your own values, beliefs and world view. Study the positions of those who disagree and take a learning approach to decisions.  Earnestly develop a more thorough understanding of the matter.
  10. Whenever possible take a day or two to consider.

REFERENCES

I have pinched many ideas from the following authors.

 Acciarini, C.,  Brunetta, F., Boccardelli, F. (2020.) Cognitive biases and decision-making strategies in times of change: a systematic literature review. Management Decision, emerald.com.

 Bazerman, MH, Moore, DH. (2012)  Judgment in managerial decision making. google.com

Campbell, Kevin. (2020) 10 performance review biases and how to avoid them. In Performance management.

Cherry, Kendra. (2020) What is cognitive bias in Very well mind.

Cristofaro, M. (2017) Reducing biases of decision-making process is in complex organisations.  Management research review

Goldstein, Daniel, Selten, Reinhard. (2001) Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox.

 Javetski, Bill and Koller, Tim (2018)  Debiasing the corporation: An interview with Nobel laureate Richard Thaler in Corporate Finance Practice.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kahneman D, Tversky A. (1984) Choices, values, and frames American Psychologist. 39: 341-350.

Korte, RF. (2003)  Biases in decision making.  Advances in developing human resources.

Riegel, Deborah Grayson. (2021) 5 biases that might be ruining your hybrid meetings. In WORK LIFE.

Stevens, Allison. (2019) Think you’re not biased? Think again.  In Science news for students.

Tetlock, P. E., & Mitchell, G. (2009. Implicit bias and accountability systems: What must organizations do to prevent discrimination?. Research in organizational behavior, 29, 3-38.doi: 10.1016/j.riob.2009.10.002

Tversky A, Kahneman D. (1971) Belief in the law of small numbers Psychological Bulletin. 76: 105-110.

Williams, Joan C. (2007) Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good.