How cognitive bias is impacting our workplaces without us even realising it.
Spend any amount of time studying psychology, and you’ll quickly realise one thing: The human brain is a mess. While it feels like we have a fairly comprehensive view of the world around us, the truth isn’t quite so simple. Today, we’re getting into the topic of cognitive bias at work, how to spot it, and how to limit its impact.
What are cognitive biases?
Our brains cope with the massive amounts of info they receive by taking mental shortcuts, called “heuristics.” Some heuristics speed up thought processes, jumping to conclusions based on past experience. Others affect how we interpret sensory information, like realising that the shape in the corner of your vision is an attacking predator. But these shortcuts can cause our brain to make mistakes. This is most notable with sensory heuristics and optical illusions.
So, cognitive biases are the misinterpretations and faulty assumptions that stem from the shortcuts our brain takes when processing information, or applying past experiences to new situations. The impact of cognitive bias at work can range from inconvenience to outright disruption.
Cognitive biases can be so disruptive that they can play a role in common mental health problems affecting employees, such as depression, anxiety, and even addiction. Understanding cognitive biases and how they affect us is key to having a productive workplace full of thriving employees.
5 cognitive bias examples in business and the problems they cause
For the sake of brevity, we’ve picked out five of the most relevant examples of cognitive biases impacting the workplace that you need to watch out for:
- Confirmation bias: This is when you have such a deeply ingrained belief that you selectively focus on information that supports it. When confronted with contradictory information, someone struggling with confirmation bias will either disregard it entirely, or somehow twist their interpretation to support their beliefs.
One way confirmation bias affects the workplace is by limiting people’s buy-in to new ideas when old ways of doing things are so heavily ingrained. A historical example is when Dr. Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis found that hand sanitation significantly cut infant mortality in the 1800s.
Many physicians who delivered children had also been handling corpses, resulting in numerous deaths due to necrotic infection. Despite the evidence, many doctors opposed these policies, seemingly offended at the implication that they had dirty hands.
A more contemporary example would be those hold-outs who can’t see the writing on the wall and insist on things like outdated annual performance reviews, despite timely feedback being more effective.
- The halo effect: This form of cognitive bias at work is basically when we associate positive traits with other positive traits, and negative traits with negative ones. A popular example is that we’re more likely to believe that someone is a good person if we find them attractive.
In the workplace, this might take the form of assuming that the people you get on with are more reliable than the colleagues you barely know. Case in point, despite being 13% more productive, remote workers are 50% less likely to be promoted than their centralised colleagues, whose presence gives them more opportunities for building social relationships with their managers.
- The false consensus effect: This is when you think more people agree with you than actually do. This kind of cognitive bias at work is one that managers need to watch out for in particular, because of their capacity for making decisions. Whether you listen to employees without taking anything on board, or forgo seeking their opinions entirely, ignoring your staff because you assume you know best is a rookie managerial mistake.
- Actor/observer bias: Put simply, we look differently at things depending on whether we’re the actor or an observer. If you snap at someone, you might know it’s because you’re having a bad day. But, if a clerk in a shop is rude to you, you’re much more likely to assume that’s just their personality.
This even extends to how we judge our colleagues versus ourselves. If you take a sick day from work, you know that you needed it. But, when a colleague does so, you might assume that they’re simply skiving out of laziness.
- The Dunning-Kruger effect: This phenomenon is when someone assumes they have a working knowledge of a given topic based on a very superficial understanding. In other words, stupid people think they’re smart, and realising how much you don’t know means you’re well on your way to actually learning.
Your organisation has knowledge specialists for a reason, and assuming you don’t need their help is a quick way to make a mess of things. For example, a CEO or HR director choosing new tech solutions without consulting IT. By not taking advantage of their knowledge, you’re likely to just create more work by choosing something that isn’t effective or compatible with existing equipment. Remember, a ten-minute Google search is no substitute for actual expertise.
Tackling cognitive bias at work
Our biases are a part of us, and you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking you can eliminate them entirely. But you can take steps to mitigate it. Let’s look at how to test for cognitive bias, and what to do with that information:
- Implement awareness training: Teaching employees to be aware of their own biases is an excellent place to start. In fact, training exercises that use feedback and education to challenge biases can reduce their impact by almost a third.
- Encourage employees to challenge their assumptions: If you use any kind of regular feedback, these are great opportunities to encourage self-reflection. Managers should challenge employee assumptions with questions, but also lead by example by openly challenging their own biases.
- Use 360° feedback to promote impartiality: One of the biggest impacts of cognitive bias is in how employee performance gets evaluated. A manager might be biased towards their favourite staff members, but 360° feedback from a wide array of colleagues can provide a more complete view of employee performance.