7 Ways for Leaders to Deal With Bias

Once upon a time there was a boss who was an extrovert and who preferred working with extroverts. 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 came to believe reflective and thoughtful individuals who weren’t johnnie-on-the-spot with an opinion weren’t qualified to work in his department.

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

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

Prejudice: a preconceived opinion, prejudgment, or attitude that negatively impacts 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 didn’t make this boss a bad person. We’re all biased. Our brains facilitate it. 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.”

5 Common Workplace Cognitive Biases

As you read about these five common biases, think about your workplace. Can you see their influence in how your workplace culture thinks, feels, and acts?

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 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.”

7 Ways to Temper Bias

So, how do leaders avoid the thinking trap that the extrovert-preferring boss fell victim to? Leaders can:

  • Be mindful of always listening to their gut. Quick decisions and impressions can unconsciously be shaped by bias.
  • 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.
  • Stop relying exclusively on memory—it isn’t as infallible, accurate, or impartial as most people think it is. Memory plays tricks on everyone.
  • Recognize that not every decision is best served by using narrow either/or. Sometimes, the right answer is both/and. Effective leaders understand that both results and relationships are key for long-term success.
  • Include contrarians on every team and listen to what they have to say. Sure, at times contrarians are a big pain in the patooty; but over time, their contributions in helping people see things from a different perspective are invaluable.
  • Use Edward de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats—a methodology that makes it safe to point out bias, errors and omissions in facts, downsides, etc.
  • Let go of the notion that they aren’t biased. They are. Everyone is.

“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 been successful for you in learning to mitigate the negative impacts of bias?