Almost a year ago, during the height of the pandemic, I wrote multiple blogs about leadership. I even went as far as to define the different styles of leadership. Upon further thought, I have decided it is time to dig deeper into leadership and the effects of your cognitive biases. Seeing the word bias may have instantly made you uncomfortable or less receptive, but hang in there.
The word bias has turned into a buzzword. Many people use this word without ever really knowing what it means. I see this all the time on social media and the news. People have used this word so often that it is associated with a purely negative connotation. The true definition of bias is a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.
What Does Bias Look Like In Leadership?
You might be asking yourself, what does cognitive bias have to do with leadership? The answer is everything. Small biases that you may have learned as a young child could be unconsciously affecting your team. Image this scenario:
Your company is going through a merger. As your team’s manager, you will now be integrating members from another company into your workplace culture. In the past, you have experienced many failed mergers and acquisitions. You have been on teams that merged, and they always resulted in a hostile work environment. As your team leader, you try to be enthusiastic about the merger, but you are concerned. As months move forward and your team tries to integrate, all you can see are the negatives and downsides. You enjoy working with some of the new employees, but others rub you the wrong way. After all, they weren’t a part of the team that you handpicked. These problems continue, becoming bigger and bigger until you have to reorganize your entire team by sending employees to different departments or letting them go. To you, this situation proves that mergers don’t work and employees can’t be integrated from two companies.
Let’s break down what was happening in this scenario—using the three kinds of biases that affect leadership. The three types of biases to watch for in your leadership are affinity bias, confirmation bias and fundamental attribution error.
Keep the scenario above in mind. Affinity bias means that we have the natural tendency to like people more when they remind us of ourselves. Affinity bias does not only apply to physical features. We also favor people who may have a similar background or work ethic. The things that we value about ourselves affect what we value about others. If you are proud of your work ethic, you will most likely favor someone you believe has an intense work ethic. We like people who remind us of ourselves.
How could this affect your leadership? Affinity bias mainly affects minorities. This unconscious bias puts them at a disadvantage in the workplace. Even when leaders are conscious of their prejudices, they can still be affected by their affinity bias. There are multiple ways to work against affinity bias. My favorite method is the “flip it test.” Presented by Kristin Pressner in a Ted Talk. The technique calls you to swap out employees and see if you would have the same reaction. Using the scenario above, if one of the newly acquired employees were to question your leadership, this would most likely be upsetting. Who are they to challenge you when they have only been on the team for a few months? Now flip this scenario, if someone you had hired questioned your leadership, would you feel differently?
Acknowledging your affinity bias is not enough to prevent it. To be able to provide equity for each of your employees, you must invest time into change. Here is an excellent resource with more techniques for combating affinity bias.
Confirmation bias is vital to understand as a leader. It gives you context and allows you to look deeper into the reasons behind your decisions. More often than not, you look for information that supports your current beliefs. Not only do you notice information that supports your opinion, but you actively seek it out. If you have already made your mind up, your confirmation bias will continue to reaffirm this belief.
Surely confirmation bias can’t be a bad thing; of course, we would find information to support our opinions. We find supporting information because we are right. Right? Let’s look deeper into how this could affect your ability to lead. In the example above, we can see obvious confirmation bias. The leader in that example has the belief that mergers always fail. Unconsciously, this leader is actively seeking out information that supports their idea that this merger is failing. So that brings us to the question, is the merger failing because all mergers fail or are the leaders’ biases causing the merger to fail?
How do we combat our confirmation bias? The answer lies within ourselves. By increasing our self-awareness, we can challenge our beliefs. Seek out information that is different from yours. Don’t consider this information for a second and then push it aside. Take that information and give it some real thought; challenge your belief. Talk openly with others about your internal struggle. For significant decisions, put someone in charge of playing devil’s advocate. Having someone contest ideas and bring up different perspectives allows you to make fully informed decisions.
Just like every other form of bias, confirmation bias is typical. Learn more about how confirmation bias is human nature and how we can work against it.
Fundamental Attribution Error
According to Simply Psychology, Fundamental Attribution Error, also known as over correspondence bias, is “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.” For a visual example of a fundamental attribution error, watch this informational video.
Fundamental attribution error assumes that your employee is always late because they don’t have a good work ethic and are just collecting a paycheck. In reality, this employee has been handling some family issues, which causes them to be late regularly. Instead of berating this employee, you allow them to work from home (WFH). WFH causes their productivity to increase drastically.
It is human to assume that your employee’s behavior is because of their personality. But the mark of a great leader is to look for external causes. Sometimes even something as simple as having a conversation with your employee can reveal the valid reasons for their behavior. Encouraging an open workplace that cultivates a culture of empathy is a way to prevent fundamental attribution error.
For more information on developing healthy workplace culture, check out our four steps to change your workplace culture.
Beyond Cognitive Biases
It is essential to understand the bias is human nature. But like a lot of other things, just because it is our default, this does not make it fair or just for others. Working against your natural tendencies may seem uncomfortable and, at times, impossible. There are multitudes of people who consider themselves to be leaders, but there are not many people who are great leaders. Leadership requires you to do the hard things like understanding and combating your cognitive bias.
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