Overcoming Personal Bias That Affects Your Decision-making

One of the great things about writing a blog for this company is that we keep up on the latest business topics with discussions about our new seminars. Today, a co-worker and I were talking about a new program going out soon about bias vs. discrimination. Part of the program deals with the difference in legality between bias and discrimination.

Not being lawyers or HR professionals, we debated that biased thinking is generally not illegal, but any discriminatory action you take based on your biases is. Again … we are NOT lawyers, so save your emails with examples of us being wrong for another time!

Cognitive biases are defined as the tendency to think in a certain way that deviates from logical or rational thinking. It’s hard for some people to admit being biased, because of the negative connotation surrounding the word. However, biases are hardwired into our brains so that we can make quick and efficient decisions.

As Stephanie Vozza notes in a blog for Fast Company, “Biases work well because they’re often systematic and predictable, but problems arise when individuals habitually rely on this method of decision making, excluding or ignoring additional information.”

My work discussion today did get me thinking about the different kinds of biases we humans have. Wikipedia lists around 166 different biases, and, regardless of your level of contempt on the validity and accuracy of Wikipedia, it’s worth a look.

Bias Can Work For You, and Possibly Lead to Negative Actions … It’s Up to You

No matter where you sit on the corporate ladder, you make dozens of decisions every day. Most are small and some, insignificant, while others are huge, with lots of moving parts. These decisions have significant repercussions and financial consequences.

Managers, supervisors, team leaders and executives have to keep this in mind with everything they say and do during the day. Being in a position of power and influence carries an extra burden to control personal bias. You doubtless know the hundreds of places where hiring managers can trip up legally during the interview process. Even bias in a positive way can lead to bad questions. For instance, you see an older candidate went to the same high school you did, and you ask them what year they graduated. Oops … that’s not allowed because the answer could lead to age bias in your hiring decision.

The good news is that most of us can leave our biases aside when making business decisions.

For example, a team leader that believes a group project should follow Path A at a certain point, can defer to the desire of the rest of the group to follow Path B. This leader has maintained objectivity and is counting on the wisdom of his or her teammates to have done the same.

What Kind of Biases Affect Our Behavior Most?

By definition, all biases affect our decisions. However, here are ten that generally carry the most impact in business:

  1. Status quo bias: The tendency to like things to stay relatively the same.
  2. Anchoring bias: People are over-reliant on the first piece of information they hear and it can greatly alter their perception of the issue.  Social media is the Promised Land of anchoring biases. Anchor bias is the lifeblood of the sales world where the best salespeople provide arbitrary anchor numbers for their products because they know most people won’t adjust their thinking properly.
  3. Social comparison bias: The tendency, when making hiring decisions, to favor candidates whose talents don’t compete too closely with yours.
  4. Pro-innovation bias: Excessive optimism over a new invention or innovation’s usefulness to society without identifying its limitations or weaknesses. For example, many of us Baby Boomers have been hearing about the “paperless office” since the 1970’s. It still hasn’t happened because, while most things can be stored digitally today, paper copies are still useful, or even necessary.
  5. Present bias: Paying attention to what is happening now, without enough concern for the future.
  6. Omission bias: The tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral, than equally harmful omissions (inactions). Example … you’re chatting with another candidate for the same job you want in the waiting room of the company you both want to work for. He mentions a peanut allergy at one point. You know the candy dish on the table in front of you has candy containing peanuts. Which is worse: Offering the candy to him while telling him a piece of chocolate will relax him, or not saying a word of warning when he reaches for the candy himself?
  7. Normalcy bias: The refusal to plan for, or react to, a disaster that has never happened before, or happens very infrequently. For example, in the Central Midwest, we prepare constantly for floods and tornadoes, but completely blow off preparing for earthquakes.
  8. Distinction bias: The tendency to view two options as more dissimilar when evaluating them simultaneously than when evaluating them separately. Ever been on the sales floor of an electronics store? Two high-quality TVs sit next to each other. However, one of them has a slightly brighter picture and is $800 more. The customer rationalizes buying the more expensive TV because of the increased brightness. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that the cheaper television would look incredible in his living room when not sitting next to the other.
  9. Confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. FOX News vs. MSNBC … if you’re politically active, chances are good that you only watch one of these channels. Avoid confirmation bias by being skeptical of what you hear and search out other information.
  10. Blind spot bias: Recognizing biases in judgment of others, while failing to see the impact of biases on one’s own judgment.

And if you think being bright gives you an edge … think again. It’s not genius that makes for good decision making, but disciplined, logical processes. According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize- winning economist and author, intelligence does not reduce our susceptibility to bias. In fact, higher intelligence can lead to over-confidence, which can actually increase bias.

Further complicating our need to keep bias out of our decision making is our difficulty in judging our own biases (the blind spot bias noted above).

Learn to Control Your Two Thinking Systems

In addition to all these biases, we actually have two systems of thinking. There’s the deliberate, logical part of your mind that is capable of analyzing a problem and coming up with a rational answer. This type of thinking is slow and deliberate.

But most of the time we’re actually using our faster, more intuitive system of thinking. It’s this fast, instinctive mind that is in control. It handles everything from switching lanes in rush hour to choosing the flavors for our double-dip cone at Baskin-Robbins.

In life, but especially in business, complex, multifaceted, long-ranging decisions must be passed over to our slower, more logical and cautious parts of our brain. Taking the time for this thought process is necessary for good decision making. If you need a review of the decision-making process itself, check out this quick step-by-step article from University of Massachusetts.

In addition to taking time for this thought process, there are two ways to  help make better business decisions:

  1. Use groups or teams. Many decisions need to be made quickly and don’t allow time to assemble a group. But, when possible, a group will be able to come up with more possible alternatives and provide pertinent facts and expertise. These groups need to be diverse. Consider including someone who’s been in a similar situation or people with niche knowledge to increase accuracy. Also, who makes the ultimate decision must be clarified to all team members.
  2. Rely on data. Assign relative importance to each item involved in your decision. You may decide to put numbers ranking each factor. Reliance on the numbers can keep you focused on the facts and help you stick to the pros and cons.

Everyone has biases, and being aware of them doesn’t change them. When it comes to decision making, it’s important to acknowledge the role they play. But, remember to include multiple perspectives and look to the data for direction. Whether you’re choosing a new hire or charting a new course, approach decisions as objectively as possible.


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