Battling Bias in Decision Making
It Takes a Team to Beat Back Biases
Overcoming unconscious biases that negatively influence decision-making and professional behavior is hard work. It takes consistent, conscious effort to tease out the unconscious biases that may be diverting a leader from taking the soundest, most productive steps in both decision-making and implementation.
And you cannot go it alone in your hunt for internal biases. It takes a team that develops a habitual mindset to watch for them in each other, and flush the biases out into the open to challenge them every day.
We call this desirable leadership habit the “pursuit of truth,” and consider it a foundational leadership mindset. You know that biases are epidemic in business interactions; they are handy unconscious mental shortcuts that appear to make decision-making faster and easier. But, biases short-circuit sound decision-making, and are the enemy of a clear-headed pursuit of the truth.
We often go back to this article, posted on Strategy& by Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock in 2015, as it provides a great touchpoint for everyone who understands how biases work and needs a reminder about where to look for them in everyday work behavior.
This quote from the article captures what we mean:
“Human biases occur outside conscious awareness, and thus people are literally unaware of them as they occur. As an individual, you cannot consciously “watch out for biases,” because there will never be anything to see. It would be like trying to “watch out” for how much insulin you are producing.
How then can the negative effects of bias be overcome? Collectively. Organizations and teams can become aware of bias in ways that individuals cannot. Team-based practices can be redesigned to help identify biases as they emerge, and counteract them on the fly, thus mitigating their effect.”
Conscious biases are relatively easy to spot and challenge, such as cultural biases around diversity and inclusion. Unconscious biases are not. These wolves of the mind masquerade as convictions, self-worth, experience and a whole host of other bits of sheep’s clothing that hide their subjective character.
(The article offers a great summary of “Common Biases.” Scroll down to find the list.)
How do you equip a team to better challenge hidden, ingrained biases and minimize their impact?
- The first step, as always, is awareness. The Strategy& article has a wonderful checklist of common, naturally occurring biases that each of us can watch for, in ourselves and others.
- The second step involves permission, and an agreed approach to “bias challenges.” Team members must put aside their defenses against bias challenges. This is often the hardest step to take for any team. How can you challenge an unconscious bias you may see in a coworker without it becoming a personal attack?
- The third step is commitment. Biases exist because the human brain loves shortcuts whenever hard mental work is required. Each team member has to work hard on the collective task of making the bias challenge mindset habitual, and needs the support of every other team member to keep everyone on track.
This takes time. The team must start constructing a “norm” within its culture that allows deeper discussions of possible biases that isolates it from personality and keeps relationships intact and healthy.
We are deeply committed to the Pursuit of Truth as a foundational aspect of highly effective leadership. As such we welcome any comments or perspectives you may have that can help us keep our own biases at bay as we continually evolve our thinking around this core leadership success factor.