Bias in Decision-making

Bias is back in business!  

There has been a recent resurgence of interest in bias in the workplace and particularly in the possible impact unconscious bias has.  A substantial part of this renewed “unconscious bias energy” has been directed at diversity and gender.  For many, it is now assumed that unconscious bias is the major villain in explaining why there has been so little change in the representation of women in executive and board positions.  The issues are much broader than this (see Kahneman, Lovallo & Sibony 2011).  

Bias, whether conscious and unconscious, is a critical concern for all decision-making in the workplace, and especially decision-making that occurs within a group context, e.g., decisions about recruitment, promotion and talent, whether to invest in a new product range, or decisions by groups designed to generate innovative solutions to problems. Kahneman, Lovallo & Sibony (2011) report a recent McKinsey study that showed that when there was a focus on eliminating bias in decision-making processes, business investment returns were 7% higher.

Kahneman (2011) also provides a useful framework for considering decision-making and the potential influence of bias. His work is based on two core modes of thinking that have been shown to operate when decisions are made.

Intuitive thinking

  • This is more likely to occur when we are not consciously focusing on how we do things – they just happen (e.g., walking, responding to a stranger). 
  • Impressions, emotions and associations flow effortlessly (e.g., fear, women are better at relationships).
  • Generally, we are in a state of mindlessness.
  • Bias is more likely to come into play with this process.

Reflective thinking

  • This process dominates when we are trying to solve a problem.
  • Thinking is slow, effortful and deliberate (we are mindful)
  • Bias is less likely to come into play in these situations.

What are some of the ways we can reduce the impact of bias in decision-making?

First, at a personal level, it helps to keep in mind

  • We all have the potential to show bias. 
  • It easier to detect bias displayed by others than by ourselves.
  • Personal awareness of bias is not likely to eliminate it completely.
  • The potential for our biases to have impact is increased when we are part of decision-making groups, e.g., if we are in a male dominated group making a talent decision where 10% of the candidates are female.

Second, explore your own biases

  • Seek the advice of others to identify your own bias blind spots and stereotypes.
  • Be open in your responses to the challenges made by others towards you about your possible biases. 
  • Identify highly specific counter-examples to your stereotypes and focus on these when making decisions.
  • Adopt a growth mindset (people can change).
  • Take a different perspective and get into other people’s shoes.
  • Join a group where you are an “outsider”.
  • Try to be more mindful and curious.

Third, set up some decision-making rules. (see Kahneman for further ideas)

  • Be mindful that bias impact is easily amplified when “in-groups” are making decisions 
  • Identify your opportunities to reduce and eliminate bias in particular group-based decision-making processes in your workplace.
  • Identify the most common stereotypes and beliefs/mindsets that could create bias and influence decisions.  Challenge others when you see evidence of these.
  • Identify which biases are most likely to occur in specific decision-making processes, e.g.,
    - Confirmatory bias
    - Attribution error
    - In-group bias
    - Gender bias
  • When you suspect bias, ask open questions, be curious don’t assume.
  • Check the dynamics in decision-making groups and identify and eliminate possible group-based biases. 
  • Monitor, reflect and evaluate the operation of biases in the decision-making processes you participate in.

Fourth, build systems and processes to ensure effective decision-making

  • Evaluate, seek evidence, reflect and review group decisions made by others (build this process into your systems). 
  • Initiate a bias, blindness or obedience audit.
  • Review leadership capabilities to ensure they are not based on stereotypes and therefore open to bias.
  • Review performance and talent systems to identify and eliminate bias.
  • Review recruitment and selection processes to reduce selection “in your own image”
  • Challenge assumptions about career paths and about the experiences accepted as being necessary for progression.
  • Build in a monitoring and evaluation process to measure progress every six months.

Keep asking: what would your workplace look like if stereotypes and biases were not prevalent?

Back to Thinking 

...eliminating bias in decision-making processes, business investment returns were 7% higher.


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