In our culture, the word “bias” holds a decidedly negative connotation. Not surprising considering the definition of the word: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Nobody wants to be considered prejudiced or unfair. As business leaders striving to lead our organizations to success, we can’t afford to be perceived that way. The ironic truth is that all human beings are full of biases, because that’s how the brain works. Some biases that frequently rear their heads in the business world include:
- Action-oriented biases drive us to take actions without considering their potential ramifications. They lead us to overestimate expected positive outcomes while underestimating possible negative ones.
- Interest biases often show up as disagreements over the importance of key corporate objectives and misaligned incentives that reward individual effort at the expense of the team. They create emotional attachments to certain elements of the business – such as legacy employees, products or brands – that keep people and organizations stuck in the past.
- Stability biases drive us into inaction in the face of uncertainty, hold onto treasured values that no longer serve us well, and refuse to make needed adjustments.
- Social biases reflect a preference for harmony over conflict. This often causes groups to align with the leader’s or loud participant’s viewpoint rather than slow down, push back, and explore alternative ideas or solutions.
- Pattern recognition biases lead us to see patterns where none exist. The patterns we think we see usually align closely with our existing attitudes and assumptions.
None of these biases support winning in business, but they’re not the most damaging.
In my experience, the confirmation bias – the tendency of the human brain to go to great lengths to reinforce the viewpoint it already has – takes the cake when it comes to damaging organizations.
When we lean too heavily on our confirmation biases, we tend to:
- Put too much stock in evidence that supports favored personal or organizational beliefs
- Minimize or ignore evidence that contradicts those beliefs
- Use comparisons with situations that are not directly comparable
- Support ideas based on the status of the person presenting them rather than on factual evidence
Bad decisions based on unconfirmed opinions and/or outdated information. Inappropriate or misguided use of organizational resources and personnel. New products or services that widely miss the mark in terms of meeting changing customer needs. The list goes on.
But wait, it gets worse.
When a new idea or proposed action stirs up emotions, the tendency to reinforce what we already believe gets even stronger. And don’t think intelligence provides a defense against confirmation bias because smart people excel at rationalizing their beliefs. The biggest problem with confirmation bias is that it takes place at the subconscious level. Our thinking may feel rational even when confirmation bias has us firmly under its control.
A Devilish Solution
Fortunately, there’s a way to stop confirmation bias in its tracks. Instead of glomming on to everything you can think of that confirms your hypothesis, purposefully seek to disconfirm it. In other words, become your own devil’s advocate.
By this I mean get into the habit of pausing and taking the position that the idea or action you’re considering is patently absurd. When you pause, ask yourself questions like:
- Why am I assuming that my current beliefs about our business, our market and our customers are still true? When was the last time I checked?
- Why am I focusing so much on what has made the organization successful in the past? Why am I thinking it will always be that way?
- Why am I not encouraging – and listening to – alternative points of view?
- Why do I feel I am so right on this issue? Do I have real data to support my position or am I just making stuff up?
- What am I overlooking? What could I be missing?
Most important, ask: what if I am wrong about this?
It helps to use this process with your team as well. When discussing a new idea or key decision, appoint a designated devil’s advocate to ask the questions that otherwise would not get put on the table. Before doing so, explain why it’s important to go through this process, and let the person know they have full permission to challenge your thinking.
As leaders, it’s not easy to challenge our own point of view. That’s not how the human brain works, and we typically didn’t become successful by constantly questioning our thinking. Like most leadership skills, it takes diligent practice to get good at it. Taking the time to examine our biases and see things from a different perspective can not only prevent poor-quality decisions that don’t support winning, it can also open the door to new opportunities that do.