Rational vs. Emotional. Thinking vs. Feeling. Human history is littered with studies, books, assessments, and conversations seeking to explain how these forces interact with each other. Our simplest interpretation of thousands of years of inquiry is that our minds and emotions dance with each other. For some, biological wiring and environmental shaping have caused our minds to lead the dance. For others, the dance seems to be led more by emotion. But make no mistake, both partners are on the dance floor during every song. And each of them is tempted by another partner at the dance—bias.
Bias is the tendency to be influenced in our decisions by a perspective we hold. In leadership, bias is dangerous because it can exist at the expense of organizational goals and objectives. We’ve probably all had an employee who rubbed us the wrong way, and no matter how good their idea, we found fault with it. Likewise, we’ve probably all had an employee we loved, and no matter how poorly they worked on a critical project, we made excuses for them. That’s bias in action.
Today, we’ll explore the biases that often tempt us, and we’ll wrap the week with some tips to overcome them. Let’s start with a brief explanation of the biases we are susceptible to hold.
When we hold a belief and are reviewing information involving that belief, our minds unconsciously navigate to and consume the evidence that confirms what we want to believe. In other words, we find what we like and ignore the rest. Think Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time? Or maybe you’re in the LeBron James camp? Run a basic Google search on the topic and be prepared to find thousands of other people who agree. Even the framing of the search terms can get us the results we want.
When we hold an idea strongly, we tend to explain it with passion. Interestingly, that very fact leads us to cling to the idea even more because we believe that the depth of our conviction and the truth are equated. Want to test the theory? Watch a YouTube video of a speaker that you disagree with, but who speaks in fiery language, passionate tones, and colorful anecdotes. See if you find yourself gravitating to their side, even if briefly.
When we meet people, we tend to immediately identify positive or negative features in them. If our initial encounter finds them well-dressed and articulate, we may begin to assume other attributes such as intelligence and confidence. If our initial encounter finds them sweaty and halting, we may start to assume other anxious and disjointed attributes. The next time you’re at a store, observe two people with different features, and make a mental note of the next two thoughts you have about each of them. Were you a victim of appearance bias?
When we find others who think the same way we do, we feel validated. This pull is strong enough that we often surround ourselves with people who think like us. And if we are in a room of people who think differently from us, we’ll generate ways to suggest that “we’re really saying the same thing.” Watch the dynamics of the room in the next meeting where a disagreement arises. See if people scramble to get on the same page quickly rather than fully exploring the areas of disagreement.
When we make mistakes, we often avoid the deep introspection that would reveal our contribution to the failures. Instead, we tend to minimize the mistake, criticize others, blame circumstances, or say we acted “out of character.” Think about your last fight with your spouse or partner. What role did you play in the fight? What role did they play? Which list is longer? If we fall prey to the blame bias, their list will have more items.
What’s Next? Take the next few days to identify the biases that tempt you and jot down the order from most tempting to least tempting.