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bias and ignorance


Once upon a time there was boss who was an extrovert and who preferred working with extroverts. He liked people jockeying to make themselves heard and found the quiet, reflective ones annoying. Over time, he quit adding introverts to his team and weeded out those who had joined the team before he took over.

He was shocked when a class action discrimination charge was filed against him.

It’s estimated that somewhere between 50 and 74 percent of the population are extroverts. This boss preferred working with talkative, high-energy, action-oriented people. He loved having a team of outgoing individuals who didn’t hesitate to share their opinions, even if they had to talk over each other to do so. This boss believed reflective and thoughtful individuals who weren’t johnnie-on-the-spot with a loud opinion weren’t qualified to work in his department.

This boss let his preference—his bias—morph into prejudice, which resulted in discrimination.

Let’s take a look at how this hierarchy of harm unfolds:

Bias: a tendency to favor or disfavor that prevents neutral consideration.

Prejudice: a preconceived opinion, prejudgment, or attitude that negatively impact one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions about a group or individual.

Discrimination: unfair, inappropriate, unjustifiable, and negative behavior toward a group or its members.

Having a bias for extroverts didn’t make this boss a bad person. What made him a poor leader though, was that he failed to control for his bias.

He’s not alone. Even though people like to think they’re unbiased, they’re not!

Our brains facilitate biased thinking:

    • Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls it “System 1” thinking, an “effortless, often unconscious process that infers and invents causes and intentions, neglects ambiguity, suppresses doubt, and uses similarity rather than probability.”
    • Author Malcolm Gladwell calls it “the power of thinking without thinking.”

We all occasionally go on autopilot, especially when under pressure or experiencing something new, and rely on the mental pairings we make when we fold things into our memory. Being an effective leader. though, depends on whether or not we tame our biases or let them control what we do.


5 common workplace cognitive biases


Biases are everywhere.

“Cultural biases are like smog in the air,” says Jennifer Richeson, a Yale psychologist. “To live and grow up in our culture, then, is to ‘take in’ these cultural messages and biases and do so largely unconsciously.”

Some biases bubble up more frequently than others. Think about where you work. Have you seen any of following common biases happening there?

Anchoring: the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions.

Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.

Groupthink: the psychological phenomenon for alignment that occurs within a group of people because of the desire for, and/or pressure to, have harmony or conformity.

Halo effect: the tendency for someone’s overall impression of a person, either good or bad, to be influenced by how they feel and think about the other person’s character.

Overconfidence effect:  the tendency for someone to believe subjectively that his or her judgement is better or more reliable than it objectively is.

Bias is tricky to manage. Why? Because it’s difficult for us to see our own biases.

We bump into the introspection illusion, “the assumption that our own golden rule of objectivity works well for ourselves—but others’ rules don’t work for them. The result is a blind spot that can lead otherwise careful people to exempt themselves from rules of behavior they would rigorously apply to others.”

5 ways to tame bias


So, how do leaders avoid the thinking without thinking trap that the extrovert-preferring boss fell victim to?

Leaders can five things to minimize the impact of biased thinking. They can:

  • Be mindful of always listening to their gut. Quick decisions and first impressions can unconsciously be shaped by bias. Be curious and fact check before acting.
  • Involve more people in the policy- and decision-making process. The trade-off in time involved is balanced by the emergence of fuller, deeper, richer, and more inclusive outcomes because we’re considering a broader spectrum of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives.
  • Stop relying exclusively on memory—it isn’t as infallible, accurate, or impartial as most people think it is. Memory plays tricks on everyone. Biased impressions are folded into our memories.
  • Recognize that not every decision is best served by using narrow either/or thinking. Sometimes, the right answer is both/and. Biased thinking is often at the core of polarization.
  • Include contrarians on every team and listen to what they have to say. Their contributions in helping people see things from a different perspective are invaluable. They force us to inhabit a different way of thinking.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts. ~Bertrand Russell

What methods have worked for you in managing bias?


Image credit before quote added: Pixabay