Need to Make A Decision? Step 1: Check Your Biases
By Lindsey Ryan
As leaders of our organizations and teams, we are faced with the need to make critical decisions every day: Which candidate do I trust to hire? What new markets should I be looking to invest in? Do the current processes in place still support the needs and the work of my business? On their face, these decisions can be difficult to make. When you also consider the number of unconscious biases at play (there are 80 known biases that impact a human’s ability to make cognitive choices!) making the “right” decision can feel like a near-impossible task.
At the second annual Work Better Day conference (see our takeaways here), participants focused on the task of decision making. We explored some common biases that can impact leaders’ abilities to make good decisions and heard from a panel of experts on how to better recognize and mitigate the effects of bias:
Age Bias: You’re at your weekly staff meeting in the large conference room where your employees are offering their suggestions on how best to pursue a potential new client. When your newest employee, a Millennial, speaks up and offers her insight, you may unconsciously and unintentionally think to yourself, “She is so young, what could she know anyway?” If this thought crosses your mind, your thinking might be influenced by age bias. Leaders display an age bias when they are more likely to listen to the ideas of seasoned or more experienced employees, regardless of the quality of the idea.
- Impact: Age bias can cause leaders to disregard good ideas and can leave younger employees feeling discouraged and without a voice.
- Potential Mitigation: Try asking for suggestions, feedback, and ideas from your staff virtually and anonymously before following up with the owner of the suggestion so you can allow yourself to truly hear the idea on its own merits, and not be biased by the age or level of experience of the employee from whom the idea was generated.
Groupthink: You’re in the same weekly staff meeting discussing the potential new customer. As the leader in the room, you kickoff the conversation and offer your opinion on the matter first. Suddenly, all of the heads in the room start to nod, and no more suggestions or ideas are offered. This is an example of groupthink. First used by social psychologist Irving L. Janis, groupthink “refers to a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group.” In order to “keep the peace” and so as not to disrupt the “uniformity of the crowd,” people will often abandon their own thoughts to adopt and accept the opinions of the group. This bias can show up even stronger when that voiced suggestion is coming from the head of the table.
- Impact: Innovation is squashed and diversity of thought cannot be capitalized on.
- Potential Mitigation: As the leader, you may consider sitting out for these conversations and setting up separate task forces for these brainstorming sessions, so as to lessen the intimidation or influence your opinions may have on the group. You also may consider assigning at least one employee in this taskforce to play the role of the “devil’s advocate” and help the group remain critical of its ideas.
Confirmation Bias: Seated in the same meeting, you have a belief that because this potential new customer is a newly-established organization, they will be a less reliable partner than a longer-tenured peer. When your employees in the meeting start presenting their data and findings that prove otherwise, you may unconsciously start disregarding these facts, telling yourself they must be wrong, and begin to only listen to the insights that further confirm your original belief. As outlined in The Clearing’s FACTS, STORIES, BELIEFS PRIME, beliefs shape the facts we listen to and the stories we tell about them.
- Impact: Entrenched beliefs that do not evolve as new information is presented can result in ill-informed decision making.
- Potential Mitigation: Actively seek out data and information that disagrees with your beliefs as a way to challenge them. You should seek to understand the initial conclusion you have reached, the data you have used to reach it, and the limitations or biases that may influence that data. Finally, enroll a trusted few to call out your blind spots when it comes to specific beliefs.
Be of service to both your business and yourself by staying aware of these biases. Cultivate your ability to spot them when they present themselves during times of decision making. Knowledge is power, and the more knowledgeable you can be of the unconscious biases that may be affecting how you make decisions, as well as potential ways to mitigate these biases, the better your decisions can be.
At The Clearing, we help leaders continuously challenge themselves to grow and become better decision-makers. Through the use of frameworks like The PRIMES and training programs such as our Leadership Development Program, we help leaders understand and build upon their strengths, while also acknowledging and working to address their weaknesses. To learn more, contact us.