Every single person on every single day acts upon their thoughts - whether they consciously choose to or whether they were driven by biases and beliefs they may not be aware of. These unconscious drivers that influence our judgements and decision-making are called cognitive biases. While some cognitive biases help us make the better of our experiences, some can prove to be a blocker in the most distasteful ways.
Are you, as a CXO, influenced by unconscious drivers? Are you an unbiased leader? Do you make conscious business and people decisions that impact everyone around you? Cognitive biases come into play during small instances like deciding when to host an office party to big ones like high-risk business ventures. Understanding our cognitive biases can help us avoid making mistakes as managers.
When you understand yourself, you understand others!
The first step to prevent cognitive biases from hindering your success, is to recognize your own blind spots. Here are a list of few common biases that are impacting your team, and your ability to be a great leader:
On a good day, our confidence helps us sail through massive challenges. On a bad day, however, it can cloud our judgement and lead us to make bad decisions. A leader is influenced by an overconfidence bias when they are absolutely convinced that their perception is the only right perception. They can not be challenged by anyone around them. Among all cognitive biases, overconfidence bias is one of the most pervasive and potentially catastrophic. Overconfident managers make high risk decisions, putting their team leaders and organizations both in jeopardy. While it’s easy to mistake confidence with competence at the workplace, it should never be so.
Example: Say you estimated your sales turnover at 20% even though the projected revenue based on calculations doesn’t exceed 15%. You decide to go ahead with this figure and all subsequent decisions depend on it. Not only does this lead to poor strategizing but also affects key stakeholders involved. A recipe for disaster. Here are some real stories of overconfidence in history by the experts that will make your jaw drop.
How to avoid it: Overconfidence bias is at the top of the list because if a leader can avoid the traps of this, they can understand themselves and avoid failing for other biases. Self awareness requires getting uncomfortable and really listening to people around you, especially the ones that disagree with you. Reflect on your mistakes, take your feedback seriously and remember, data never lies.
The availability bias is the natural human tendency to be more biased toward information that’s easy to access mentally. In other words, leaders that trust their gut and roll with the first instinctual solution that comes to their mind, are the victims of Availability Bias. They mentally take the path of least resistance. Think of this like a mental shortcut where they make decisions based on emotional cues and familiar facts.
Example: Two associates, Jack and Jane are both due for a promotion but only one can get it. While assessing their past achievements, you stumble upon an incident where Jane mistakenly deleted all important data from the system. As this sticks in the memory of the decision maker, Jack has been promoted. Availability bias is also common during making redundant decisions, for example choosing relevant CVs when mass hiring
How to avoid it: Out of all processes in an organization, HR is the most susceptible to the availability bias. By supporting data-driven HR decisions, this type of bias can be managed well.
Status quo bias
Human beings simply do not favour change. Anything that puts us off our routine is perceived as dangerous and threatening. The bias of the status quo was massively responsible for causing anxiety and depression among people around the world during the pandemic. In business, not willing to change the status quo can reflect an organization or team’s inability to take risks, especially for our folks in Marketing and Sales. Many potentially successful plans never see the light of the day due to the risk factor involved. What if the audience rejects it? Our inventory will not support this heavy a production load. The sales projections are definitely overestimated.
Example: Netflix recognized that for Blockbuster to survive in a digital future, it would need to expand beyond its brick-and-mortar model. Rather than compete, they could help Blockbuster move into the virtual realm, run the online part of the business, and help the company thrive in a dynamic future. They offered to sell Netflix to Blockbuster for $50 million, Blockbuster refused. And we all know what happened next.
How to avoid it: One can not completely bestow all the evil upon the status quo bias as it does have its benefits. It prevents people from taking risks as the bias offers a certain degree of protection. For executives, whose success hinges on the many day-to-day decisions they make or approve, an easy way to make well-informed decisions is to lay out all their options and choose carefully. Do what it takes to factor in all angles - make a calendar, set reminders, work out planner. Remember, according to loss aversion, we assign greater weight to losses than to gains.
"Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” - Sydney J. Harris, author and journalist.
Ever met a manager who loved to believe they were always right? We’re here to remind you to not become one. Also known as the ‘knew it all along’ effect or ‘creeping determinism’, hindsight bias was first officially recognised in the 1970s. It’s basically when you look back and view an event as more predictable than it actually was.
Example: Imagine that you’re a hiring manager at an organization. You believe that hiring potential employees from top schools will be advantageous for your organization because such candidates will be more hardworking and productive. Whenever someone with a good academic background performs well, your hindsight bias will continue to interfere with future hiring decisions.
How to avoid it: The world is divided between calling hindsight bias a natural coping mechanism that protects us from disappointment, and just being a universal feature coded into our system. How can you avoid it? Remember, as for all bias, data is your best friend. Examine it and adapt it. No matter how much you think you know everything, remember that you can’t predict the future. When you do these two things, you’re in a better position to consider alternative outcomes and make fruitful decisions for your business.
Dunning and Kruger’s findings show that people with low competence tend to overestimate their abilities at a task, which is what we call the Dunning-Kruger effect. Competent people believe that the task is easy and should be carried out with high results. As for those who lack competence, they also lack the knowledge necessary to recognise what it takes to succeed. Confusing, right? Take this figure for example:
Example: At a software engineering company, 42% of employees predicted they would be ranked in the top 5%. Performance reviews are in and obviously the data does not match. On average, most people overestimate their performance, while overachievers underestimate theirs.
How to avoid it: A quick thumb-rule: Avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect by assuming that thinking you are an expert probably means you’re just beginning.
What does the expert say?
In his bestseller, Thinking fast and slow, Daniel Kahneman recommends that you ask three questions to minimise the impact of cognitive biases in your decision making:
- Is there any reason to suspect the people making the recommendation of biases are based on self-interest, overconfidence, or attachment to past experiences? Realistically speaking, it is almost impossible for people to not have these three influence their decisions.
- Have the people making the recommendation fallen in love with it? Again, this is almost an inevitability because, in most cases, people wouldn’t make the recommendation unless they loved it.
- Was there groupthink or were there dissenting opinions within the decision-making team? This question can be mitigated before the decision-making process begins by collecting a team of people who will proactively offer opposing viewpoints and challenge the conventional wisdom of the group.
I hope this article helped you identify some hidden cognitive biases you could be subconsciously suffering from. Here’s to becoming a better leader for your team and your organization.