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.
Updated 30th July 2023
It's all too easy to assume you're being objective at any given moment. But we humans are actually quite irrational creatures. And, when we end up biased, it makes us prone to mistakes or faulty assumptions. Left unchecked, these biases at work can pose a real problem for workplace wellbeing.
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. But these shortcuts can cause our brain to make mistakes.
So, cognitive biases are the misinterpretations and faulty assumptions that stem from the shortcuts our brain takes when processing information. Or using past experiences to predict 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. Understanding cognitive biases and how they affect us is key to having a happy, healthy, successful workplace.
5 work based cognitive bias examples, and the problems they cause
One thing that makes bias at work difficult to confront is that it isn't just one thing. There are various ways the human brain can succumb to bias, make assumptions or misenterpret information. Here are five examples of cognitive biases that impact us at work to watch out for:
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 cleanliness 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 business based example would be those who insist on 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.
At work, 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 in person peers 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 cognitive bias at work
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. In other words, we're usually more understanding of our own actions than those of others.
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. That's why it's essential to check your assumptions before judging your colleagues.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
This is when someone assumes they have a deep knowledge of a topic based on a very superficial understanding. Your company 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 create more work. You'll choose a solution 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.
Clear things up with communication
If you suspect bias in your organization (whether it's from you or someone else), your first step should be to communicate. This is one reason why it's so important for managers to regularly check in with employees. These regular points of contact make it easier to chase up or clarify issues. Managers can respond to individual check-in responses whenever they wish, while employees can make impromptu check-ins if they deem it necessary.
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 to mitigate cognitive bias at work
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. Use 360° feedback to gather a more complete view of employee performance.
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