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Avoiding Cognitive Bias at Work


As a leader, you make countless decisions every day that impact the people you serve, and those decisions may have far-reaching impacts. Most of us assume we make good judgments but sometimes our decision-making can go horribly awry. How does this happen? Cognitive bias, also known as a blind spot, may be partially to blame.


Cognitive bias is a systemic way of thinking designed to help us process large amounts of information quickly and efficiently. The process works because it simplifies and filters information through the lens of our experiences, preferences, and perceptions. In short, cognitive biases are mental shortcuts to assist in navigating the complexities of everyday life.


All of us are subject to multiple biases, especially when we are under pressure, fatigued, stressed, or multitasking. Being aware of potential biases allows you to consider others’ viewpoints through different lenses and be thoughtful in your decision-making.


Read on to learn more about five common biases and how they may show up at work.


Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is our preference for people similar to ourselves and people we already know and like. We have a natural tendency to gravitate toward people who share similar characteristics or backgrounds, similar values, or shared interests. Our brain recognizes the shared traits or interests, and seeing similarities, renders this person trustworthy. Affinity bias may show up in workplaces in a variety of ways impacting hiring, special opportunities, and placements. As a leader, do you unconsciously hire people that are more like you? Do you believe you ‘hire for cultural fit’? Is it possible that your bias leads you to hire the same type of person over and again? To avoid falling into the trap, actively seek out others who are different from you in fundamental ways. As part of an interview process, be sure to include a diverse panel of people. Additionally, seek out ways to share common ground with all people with whom you interact.


Confirmation Bias

Most people have a tendency to give more weight to information and evidence that confirm their beliefs. Confirmation bias favors information that supports your existing beliefs and biases. We filter information through this lens and discard items that are contradictory. This process is known as selective observation.


People on two sides of an issue may hear the same information and walk away with wildly different interpretations. When this happens it may be a sign confirmation bias has filtered information so each person interprets the event through their personal bias.


Confirmation biases impact both how we gather information and how we recall and interpret events. A great example of this is the current dialogue on the ‘echo chambers’ created through social media. You hold a strong opinion on a subject, so you join a group that also holds that opinion. You may read newspapers, magazines, and books or listen to podcasts that support your ideas. After a while, you may find that you are only interacting with people who think like you (refer back to affinity bias). All of this information serves to confirm what you already believed, making the initial belief more deeply embedded. You become more prone to remembering details that reinforce your beliefs and thus create a feedback loop, or echo chamber. Additionally, if you encounter other information that contradicts your beliefs, your brain may filter it out causing you to interpret or remember incorrectly.


One way to confront your own confirmation bias is to seek out the flaws in your own thinking and seek many viewpoints. For example, if you favor one news network over another, switch occasionally to gain a greater perspective.


The Halo Effect and Anchoring Bias

The Halo effect occurs when you highly value one aspect of a person and because of that valuation, you believe that they will also be good at various other tasks. For example, you have an employee who is detail-oriented and in his/her/their current role they are fantastic. Based on that idea, you believe they will also be a great leader and promote them without first considering if they have the other skills necessary to be good in the new role. Another example is when you notice a person who graduated from a prestigious university or has worked for a well-known company and you value them higher, even if you have no evidence or evidence would contradict that thinking.


To avoid the trap, remind yourself that just because someone attended a prestigious school or worked for a well-known organization does not necessarily mean they will by default have the skills needed to be successful with your team. Additionally, because of the anchoring effect (the tendency to be overly influenced by first impressions or the first thing we hear), we may value the person’s advice or more highly value that person’s opinions despite evidence to the contrary.


To minimize the Halo effect, challenge your own thinking. Ask yourself why you feel this way and actively seek to engage your analytical thought process. In hiring, consider the person’s other experiences and expertise as well as how their skills align with your company’s needs.


The Actor-Observer Bias

The actor-observer bias is how we perceive ourselves and others’ motivations and actions and how we attribute these actions. In short, actor-observer bias is the tendency to attribute our actions to external factors and other people's actions to internal motives. For example, if I am late to a meeting, I may be inclined to view that through the lens of unforeseen traffic, an accident, or a meeting that ran long (all items outside my loci of control). If, however, a colleague is late to a meeting, I may ascribe internal motivations such as they didn’t care, they are lazy, or just plain incompetent.


Perspective-taking is a key role in this dynamic. If I am the actor, I know my internal motivations and thinking; when it is someone else, all I can initially see is their action in the absence of their thinking; this leads us to focus on the incident (they were late) and not on what may have happened that was outside their control. If you find yourself in this situation it is important to take a breath and think about other possible reasons for the incident instead of focusing only on the negative implications.


The False Consensus Effect

The false consensus effect is the tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with your beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and values. This bias is one that shows up in many contexts at work. If I typically spend time with my friends and family, there is a high likelihood we hold similar beliefs and values. As I am surrounded by people who hold similar views, I may then attribute the same in a work setting where there may be more of a variety of thinking. Consider a meeting where you believe that everyone feels the same way you do about a topic. Then there is the ‘meeting-after-the-meeting’ where it becomes clear there was not only disagreement but vast disagreement. If you find this happening often, it may be an opportunity to see if you are creating space for people to voice different viewpoints and if you are correctly assessing the true level of agreement.


Navigating our biases

We all have biases. In order to overcome limitations caused by this unconscious process, practice these steps:


  • Be aware that EVERYONE, even you, has blind spots

  • Be mindful of your own biases and how they may influence your decision-making

  • Consider multiple viewpoints before making a final decision

  • Seek out differing viewpoints, not just those that you are comfortable with, have encountered before, or support your current thinking

  • Be willing to change your mind when presented with new evidence

  • Be willing to consider others’ viewpoints as valid, even if you disagree

  • Create inclusive meeting practices


As a leader, you make many decisions each day and those decisions have far-reaching impacts on your business and community. Understanding your own cognitive biases can help you understand your own thinking, uncover your blind spots, and hopefully, make better decisions.


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