Better Decision Making Through Reducing Bias

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about the word “bias;” usually in the context of unconscious bias as it relates to talent management decisions in the realm of diversity, inclusion, and recruitment. If you Google the phrase Unconscious Bias + Talent you’ll come up with over 150,000 articles and resources in this vein!

But truly, the word bias has no specific implication. It simply means to be prejudiced for or against something, in comparison with something else (I am biased towards white chocolate, for example). Most of us would declare that we are unbiased, thinking that it is the right, or best, state to be in. But truly, there is no way to be unbiased.  A lifetime of experiences, “lessons learned,” and repetitive cause-and-effect relationships have created biases that exist in our unconscious (according to Malcolm Gladwell in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking). Generally we simply aren’t aware of our biases.

The Power of Bias

Bias is almost a safety mechanism – with more than 11 million pieces of information coming at us every day, and the brain’s capacity to process only about 50 pieces of information at a time – if we didn’t have mental shortcuts, like bias, we’d never get through the day. In fact, unconscious processing in the brain governs the majority of important decisions we make. “What this means is that because we have brains, essentially we are all biased” (Andrea Choate, SHRM’s Neuroleadership Lessons: Recognizing and Mitigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace). Neither good nor bad, the brain is simply hardwired toward this tendency.

The Bias Impairment

Unfortunately, the brain is unable to make a decision while simultaneously noticing whether it is a biased decision. This can be risky both for individuals and for our organizations. Since we aren’t able to “see” bias – either in ourselves or in others – it’s imperative that we work proactively to raise awareness of bias and take action to mitigate it so that our employees are making the most fully informed and well-reasoned decisions possible.

Typical Bias in Decision Making

There are various forms of bias in the workplace – in relation to decision making. It’s possible you’ll recognize yourself in one or more of these examples (just by writing this article I’ve recognized a sunk cost bias – coupled with groupthink – that has been plaguing a non-profit board on which I sit).

Status Quo – Are you familiar with the Irish proverb: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t? That is the essence of a status quo bias. In other words, you’ll make a decision based on what has worked in the past rather than taking the time to evaluate if “business as usual” is still working.

Sunk Cost – The sunk cost bias causes us to throw more money and more resources at a lost cause because “we’ve put so much in to it so far,” rather than accepting that things are not working. Remember New Coke? Coca-Cola did NOT suffer from sunk cost bias. They did an immediate about-face to recapture customer loyalty and market share.

Confirmation – Confirmation bias causes us to seek out information or evidence that confirms what we already believe (and, conversely, to discount information that is not congruent). This might be demonstrated in performance reviews: Charles stays past closing two or three times a week and often comes in on Saturday – clearly he is a stellar performer. (Or, is it possible, Charles is in over his head and needs the extra time to keep up?) (See cartoon at the end of this post.)

Group ThinkThe Challenger Disaster has been widely attributed to group think bias – when we try to fit in to a particular group by mimicking their behavior or holding back on sharing thoughts that are counter to what the group is leaning towards.

Anchoring – We have the tendency to rely on the first piece of information available rather than seeking out and fully evaluating multiple sources of information. Many people who are promoted because they were “smart” or “the best” have a hard time delegating for this reason (no one can possibly do this as well as I can). Credit card companies use an anchor by identifying the “minimum payment” clearly rather than the total debt. The minimum payment makes the consumer think, “That’s not so bad.”

Ethics –Everyone thinks they behave ethically. Yale psychologist David Armor calls this “the illusion of objectivity.” Because I have made the decision, of course it is ethical. Think about the recent VW or Wells Fargo scandals. We have to presume the offenders didn’t say “This is a very bad decision, but I’m going to make it anyway.”

So How Do We Overcome Bias?

Like any problem – the first step is admitting that you have a problem. Awareness of bias is key in being able to identify and counter it in our decision making. Although, as stated at the beginning of the article, the ability to make “snap” decisions based on our past experiences and lessons learned is crucial, it’s also wise to pause and assess:

  • Do I have all the information? Is there better (or different) data I could gather?
  • What would someone else do in this situation (ask for differing perspectives)?
  • Is our workplace a safe place to “call out others” on what might be driving their decisions? A phrase as simple as “How did you arrive at that decision?” is often a powerful reminder to evaluate what contributes to one’s decision making.
  • What would be the “opposite” of what everyone else is doing – and does it have merit?

When people are mindful of their biases they make wiser, more ethical decisions and can confidently explain their decisions to others. Awareness of bias is something that requires constant attention and vigilance – much like eating right or ensuring your car is in good repair. It is not a “one and done” activity. Ultimately awareness of, and vigilance in counter-balancing, bias results in better thinking, behavior, decision making and organizational practices.