2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 26: The Fault in Ourselves — Conscious and Unconscious Influence of Biases
The Conscious and Unconscious Influence of Biases
One outcome of the pandemic is operating in a highly fractious marketplace with gender identity, economic and political distinctions often accelerated into polarization. These issues are not just external, they are also prevalent internally, revealing new challenges to leading and working together. At 2040 we find that these issues rise to the surface and become roadblocks to transformation when personal bias, conscious or subconscious, rules the culture, infuses decision making, and forms our personal and professional behavioral defaults.
Frankly, it’s hard to get in touch with personal bias since our default is to assume everyone believes and operates the way we do. Our personal biases filter the ways we see the world, consider those who surround us, and represent our perception of reality. And perception is indeed one’s reality.
We don’t know what we don’t know, nor do we always know what we need to know. Separating out the ego and changing deeply ingrained behaviors is uncomfortable and for most can be considered uncharted territory in one’s personal and professional life.
Having a diverse workforce (that is representative of your customers), working in cross-discipline, cross-functional teams, reinforcing critical thinking and objectivity, encouraging open dialogue and even criticism to maintain honesty and transparency, and practicing active listening is a good formula for mitigating and managing personal bias.
Mark Tarallo, the senior editor at Security Management Magazine, states, “You can’t manage others if you can’t manage yourself. And for any manager, effective self-management requires a certain level of professional self-knowledge.” He quotes Khalil Smith, a former leadership development expert at Apple, “Most managers think they’re really good managers, and a lot of them aren’t. Confidence and competence are not correlated.” Even the most effectively self-managed leaders are biased. David Rock, president of the NeuroLeadership Institute adds, “We see the world through tremendous filters. And we are not aware of these filters.” Rasheeda Childress adds “Hidden prejudices can have a cascading effect that reveals itself in everything from staff hires to member retention. In fact, experts warn that unconscious bias can even halt organizational innovation.”
Our human defaults lead us to align with those who are most like us, those that look like us, those who think as we do, and those that have the same or similar values we do. We strive for familiarity as it leads to comfort and predictability. Those who are like us, look like us and think as we do are most likely to confirm our own thoughts and actions, which in turn feeds our ego and gives us confidence in our own decision making. Our defaults are a longing to be accepted, gain that pat on the back, be liked, and be recognized for sound thinking.
Unfortunately, our defaults and desire to seek familiarity lead us to make uninformed decisions or take actions based on perceptions that are not necessarily true reality. The outcome of bias and perception impact our personal lives, the paths we take, and also strongly influence our professional lives; how we interrelate with our co-workers and those around us — and ultimately how organizations operate and are managed.
In sum, the fault in ourselves can be defined by the perception through which we view and consider the world around us to be the reflection of ourselves.
Over the past several months, we have continually surfaced via this newsletter the need for developing active listening skills, seeking objectivity through critical thinking, creating cultures that respect open dialogue and criticism, developing respect for diverse and multigenerational workforces, accepting ambiguity, being resilient, and embracing agility in a dynamically changing world..
Any one of those skills considered on its own is hard. When combined, the sum total becomes the basis forming personal and professional responsibilities in the 21st century for ourselves, our organizations and for our society as a whole. When we master each separately and then together as an interconnected whole, we can enable individuals personally and professionally to practice self-management to mitigate inherent biases that exist and unpack how these biases inform the perception of the world around us.
Let’s bring forward some examples of bias that exist consciously and unconsciously, which we typically don’t recognize nor the influence they have.
- The most common bias is similarity bias, that “people like me are better,” which ranges everything from hiring practices and interactions in meetings to promotions and even vendor choices. Michael Brainard, CEO and founder of Brainard Strategy says, “People often steer clear of those who conflict with their beliefs or are not like them — without even realizing it.”A good test is to look around and honestly assess the company you keep. Is everyone agreeing with you? Is there any criticism being shared with you? Is everyone united in your direction and plan?As a manager or leader, you may have unconsciously recruited and selected your team by seeking out those who are most similar to how you think and how you view the world. You may have unconsciously hired those who are not going to criticize you, your thinking, or your approach.
- Another Achilles Heel is shared experience bias. Like similarity bias, we seek out those who have had experiences that closely match those that we have had. A CEO may want to talk to another CEO managing a similar type of organization, A manager may seek out and only want to talk with those managing the same types of employees. Like any search for information, we often seek out the feedback and answers we want to hear by including only those who we believe are most like us and will have our shared experience and knowledge.One way through this bias filter is interacting with co-workers, peers and others who have different perspectives, come from different backgrounds, work for different organizations, and the like. Solicit their feedback and be open to receiving objective criticism that may alter, change, expand or replace your perception of a problem, situation, plan — or even the world.Leadership consultant Pamela J. Green says, “Three things are critical: humility, discomfort, and discipline,” Brainard adds, “Real development occurs when we’re uncomfortable when we’re humbled. That’s where real change occurs.” Additionally, real change occurs when we are receptive to what we may hear, read or view via critical thinking and active listening skills.
- Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out or notice information that supports our existing beliefs, perceptions, and thoughts — and ignore the information, data and knowledge that conflicts. Tanya Ashworth-Keppel, an Australian lawyer, explains co-workers need to be open to feedback, solutions and ways of doing things that they may not have preferred in the past. She advises “Look for ways to challenge what you think you see. Seek out information from a range of sources and discuss your thoughts with a diverse group of people. Then, share the feedback you get with a wider group for greater discussion. For major decisions, even consider assigning someone on your team to play devil’s advocate.”Individuals often state that they like a challenge and to be challenged. If the challenge is met, one’s behavior and/or action adds positive reinforcement of competence and builds confidence through self-assessed and defined goal attainment. In our quest to meet the challenge, we will, by default, seek out the information, data, interactions, and feedback that is most closely aligned with the way we see and relate. The default is also to substantiate how we have defined the challenge, the goal, and what results/outcomes we expect. Even when we suggest that the “I” is one’s own worst enemy, unconsciously we are still demonstrating behavior that manifests as confirmation bias.What we miss in taking on the challenge is to make ourselves uncomfortable by exploring information and data that may run counter to our own thoughts and beliefs. An individual can only counter confirmation bias by breaking former behaviors of seeking out the same sources over and over again.
- Conservatism bias seeks out familiarity. Ashworth-Keppel explains “Favoring existing information over new information threatens to change our preconceptions. When we do get new information, we tend to weigh it less heavily or dismiss it, while information that supports a previous belief is given more weight. Conservatism bias can make change management particularly challenging. Even where there are compelling reasons to change a business system, introduce new processes or modify roles, people are likely to cling to the old way of doing things. They’re not just being stubborn — they literally aren’t seeing the new information as important.”We are greatly influenced by what we consider to be the “law of familiarity” in all aspects of our lives. Our conscious and unconscious defaults to seek similarity, comfort, reduce risk and maintain safety informs our view and interpretation of the world around us. Time and again, research across marketing and sales proves how easily we are manipulated if we receive the same message in multiple ways, forms, and times. Unconsciously, we then form a familiarity with the content, information, message and relate it to our own perceptions.Even when we think we are being open and considering alternative views, new sources of information or differences in interpretation, we are ultimately weighting them by our ingrained perceptions. Therefore, we do not value the input on its merits alone.Familiarity is connected to our understanding of the world and where and how we see ourselves in it. Our personal and professional lives are built on our definitions of the role we play, how we can be recognized for doing a good job, and what information and knowledge we have or have gained to form the definitions. As such, our familiarity bias plays into our ability or inability to transform and effect a transition as we hold on to what was. Transition management can be sidelined if familiarity prevents change personally and professionally. For more on transition management, learn how inherent biases prevent success.
Self-Knowledge and Self-Management
It may be impossible to eliminate bias, but it is within reach to be aware of it and mitigate and manage it and all of its manifestations. Self-knowledge is important for everyone — leaders, managers, supervisors and their teams comprising groups of multigenerational, racially, sexually and ethnically diverse individuals– because bias exists at all levels. It is inherent in our evolutionary programming.
Self-management is equally critical. Peter Drucker wrote in Management Challenges of the 21st Century that values-based leadership (at all levels) prompts self-analysis with these questions, “What are my strengths? How do I perform? What are my values? Where do I belong? What can I contribute?” Getting to the heart of these answers and how they may influence behavior is a discipline that is critical in today’s demanding society and marketplace. Feedback analysis can reveal both strengths and vulnerabilities that enable an understanding of the individual biases that form thoughts, actions and ultimately one’s perceptions.
Drucker further writes, “Amazingly few people know how they get things done. Indeed, most of us do not even know that different people work and perform differently.” He distills it down to several key behaviors that feed into how we work with others:
- Am I a reader or a listener?
- How do I learn?
- Do I work well with people, or do I work best alone?
- Do I best perform as a decision-maker, follower or as an adviser?
The answers to these questions may actually provoke some discomfort as the result of seeing oneself in a new and very different perceptual light. When answering the questions, one must seek to go beyond conscious recognition of the moment. Instead, bring forward deeper reflection on how a situation was handled, the problem was solved, what was said or thought during an interaction and so forth. It is self-knowledge and self-management that opens the door to enabling critical thinking to determine how strongly biases are permeating perceptions, decisions, and actions.
Our experience working with clients is that bias can prevent progress and success with decision making. Our biases and perceptions, as well as our human default behaviors to gain acceptance and achieve goals consciously and unconsciously, impacts the decisions we make. On the one hand, we have biases and perceptions that form our thoughts, thinking and approach to a problem, situation, development, or the like. On the other hand, we have this immediate need, often stemming from our subconscious behavioral defaults, to get to the end of the road and address the situation and solve the problem.
The result is short-term faulty decision making as the drive for immediacy to achieve a goal results is mixed with the bias of our own thinking. Without the benefit of alternative and diverse thoughts and opinions, short-term thinking can create unintended consequences.
At 2040 we have identified eight fatal flaws that derail good leadership and management decision making and can implode an organization’s ability to be competitive. If any of these eight behaviors are currently being practiced, your organization is at risk as your decisions are short-term and run the risk of being based in perception and infused with your own biases. If you have multiple flaws at work, you are in serious trouble in today’s dynamically changing business environment.
- Do you believe you are the customer?
- Do you run your organization in your own image; how similar are those around you — are they able to provide constructive criticism; does your team think just like you or do they challenge your thinking?
- Do you have a siloed organizational structure?
- Do you make command-and-control decisions without upstream and downstream input?
- Do you use critical thinking, begetting objectivity, as a basic decision-making tool?
- Are you only making data-informed decisions without seeking thoughts from those outside your similarity circle?
- Do you make only intuitive decisions based on your perception of reality; do you resist new sources of data and information that represent alternative views?
- Are you overly focused on the short term to demonstrate results that lead to self-affirmation?
Let’s take a deeper dive into these mindsets to reveal why they can help or hinder your decision-making.
1. You believe you are the customer
There is a temptation to think that your organization serves one customer: you. That is realistically speaking, impossible. Love him or hate him, Jeff Bezos built Amazon with one guiding principle: every decision is made in the interests of the customer. With all the analytics tools available literally at our fingertips, it is antiquated not to deeply understand your customers, serve them with customized products and services and concede the point that they probably don’t look or behave like you do. Individuals in positions of power have a hard time letting go of their egos in assuming the world is “just like them.” The world is diverse and customer motivation can be complex. Collecting data and turning them into insights to understand these nuances and respond to them is the most powerful tool you have.
2. You run your organization in your own image
Look around you. Does everyone you hire look like you? First of all, we admittedly have inherent biases and unconsciously surround ourselves with people like ourselves. But an organization’s teams should be comprised and balanced with individuals who reflect the customers and comprised of those who bring alternative experiences, information, and knowledge that is very different than your own. We’ve all read about the deficits of leadership teams that are not inclusive. Callout culture aside, it is just bad business to have a workforce that is homogenized. And add to this, any effective organization needs a few outliers and independent thinkers who, although they may not fit neatly into organizational structure, can be invaluable in sparking innovative and imaginative ideas. Remember, leading with courage comes when you accept open critical dialogue upstream and downstream, providing alternative views, solutions and interpretations. Leading with courage confronts inherent biases and can result in more informed, accurate decisions — and yes, actions.
3. You have a siloed organizational structure
We hear far too often with our clients that no one in the organization is talking to anyone else. Decisions are made in isolation, information is not shared among departments, and strategies are set without context to the higher goals of the organization. It is not possible to collaborate if an organizational structure is rigid and compartmentalized. Customers do not behave in siloed ways. Their lives are holistic systems of interdependent and related behaviors. To that point, your organization, should not only reflect how your customers look, but also how they behave. Working within a systems thinking model eliminates siloed thinking and bias.
4. You make command-and-control decisions
Most organizations today are comprised of five different generations working with each other. Although a hierarchical and didactic management style has often defined leadership in the past, it is irrelevant today. The next-gen workforce wants a seat at the table, believes fiercely in collaboration and team play, is in a hurry to advance and most importantly to contribute and feel value resulting from their efforts. This may run counter to the comfort zone of traditional leaders and older generations, but it is a losing battle to enforce legacy thinking that represents inherent biases formed by the past. Top-down leadership is a relic of the past in our marketplace. Leaders today should operate as conductors, eliciting the best performances from their managers and teams, as informed, inspirational, and in-touch individuals with all generations in understanding what motivates them and how they contribute to the organization.
5. You do not use critical thinking as a basic decision-making tool
The acceptance of ambiguity that exists outside one’s biases and perceptions, along with agility and resilience are basic operating principles of running an organization in the digital age. Critical thinking is the most essential tool to ensure that any organization can remain relevant and competitive. It takes rigorous discipline to implement and enforce critical thinking throughout a workforce. It is incredibly challenging to embed critical thinking in an individual leader’s or managers’ day-to-day behavior. Train your managers who then can train their teams to make decisions to create agile strategies and operational tactics using critical thinking. It is also important to recognize during the transition what individuals and teams are giving up and how they reset the new value in themselves.
6. You make only data-informed decisions
Data output is only as good as its input. Data-driven decisions are great assets, but they are not a panacea. Data and analytics are tools and need to be used in context and tandem with common sense. “Sound decision making is an art and requires a combination of accurate information, an understanding of emotional bias or prejudice, good communication, and a willingness to collaborate and trust. Data is black and white and incredibly useful, but it does not paint the entire picture. This is where intuition comes into play. Intuition can be described as something perceived or instinctual rather than conscious and derived directly from data. In many cases, intuition is an outcome of deep experience in a specific space. That experience is what allows someone to look at a complex problem and make a quick decision without necessarily explaining or divulging lots of information and insight,” explains Amit Choudhary, Chief Operating Officer of Global Financial Services SBU at Capgemini. Additionally, for many complex decisions, all the data in the world can’t win over a lifetime’s worth of experience that informs one’s gut feeling, instinct or intuition.
7. You make only intuitive decisions
Disruptor Gabriel Swain reports, “Many leaders either don’t trust their data or haven’t adopted the technology to analyze it. A Deloitte survey reveals that 67% of business decision-makers aren’t comfortable basing decisions on data pulled from their current technology. What’s worse, 53% of senior executives are reported to feel they are too old to learn data analysis skills.” Choudhary adds, “Intuition may pose a significant risk if the leader’s conscious and unconscious biases adversely impact decision making. Critical business decisions are likely to affect several areas within an organization, which makes dependence on the intuition of one or a handful of leaders ill-advised. People who have extensive experience and intuition within one field might apply it in situations where they have little experience, resulting in poor outcomes.”
8. You are overly focused on the short term
Short-term decision-making is focused on immediate gains and a sense of accomplishment. Long-term decisions are the sum of a laundry list of short-term decisions and actions that seek incremental accomplishments to reach the gold star, so to speak. Put another way, the Seventh Generation stewardship was defined by the leaders of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy centuries ago. “Every decision they took had to keep in mind seven generations hence.” By thinking seven generations ahead (about 140 years into the future) the decisions we make today will benefit our children seven generations into the future. Most businesses don’t think “seven generations hence” when they plan. In fact, the realities of a digital marketplace make extra long-term planning a challenge when circumstances change so quickly.
Nonetheless, there are aspects of short-term thinking that are problematic. From a macro perspective, Richard Fisher senior journalist at the BBC argues “Identifying the temporal stresses that promote short-termism in our lives is only a starting point. Our greatest challenge this century is to transform our relationship with time. History suggests that our horizons have shortened before — but they can expand again. During the pandemic, our “presentism” has become even more extreme, but cultural norms have been challenged too. There may never be a better time to ask what future we actually want.”
So, what does this have to do with bias? We argue that short-term bias is often influenced by immediate gain. Brainard says “short-terms bias is the brain’s way of helping a person make decisions quickly with very little information. Our default setting is to make fast decisions.” He says, “It keeps us alive.” But short-term thinking for organizational success may not keep the enterprise alive. In fact, many short-term decisions are made to elevate the personal gains of leadership. That may sound harsh, but personal gain is typically what drives short-term thinking.
One caveat: Most organizations were hurled into short-term thinking during the pandemic. It literally was a race to keep a business alive threatened by external circumstances that forced pivots, innovations, and outright retooling of businesses to respond to the immediate circumstances. Ironically, many of these short-term decisions ultimately transformed long overdue business models and powered transformation and change that have long-term benefits.
In reality, all thinking and decisions should be customer-centric; if you deliver a sustainable customer experience with products and services they want, your decisions will be made for the greater good of your organization.
How to Address Bias Head-On
At 2040 we work every day with clients that are looking for better ways to manage and succeed. So many rules have changed in the workplace, and as a result, we have become more sensitive to the biases we hold and open to addressing them. It’s difficult and uncomfortable work, but necessary as we evolve our organizations into more enlightened and empathetic places to work. We can help you reach higher levels of success and tackle any biases in the process. We’ve been there before and we have learned the upside of using critical thinking to tackle these issues openly and positively.
2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues. We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.
Onward and upward from the 2040 Team