We all like to think that we’re rational people. We don’t wake up in the morning and decide to behave in an illogical way. We try not to let our emotions rule us, or our prejudices lead us into bad decision-making.
But… we’re only human. And all humans are irrational to an extent. In Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston outline a few of the most common biases which affect our thinking. As they point out, we’re simply wired that way – but we can still “make the most of the things we are good at while reducing the impact of those ways that our reflexes lead us astray.”
Just by identifying those biases, we can take the first steps towards managing them. So, what exactly are they?
The “too busy to notice” bias
The first bias Berger and Johnston point out is probably very familiar to you. When you put all your focus on one task, you miss things which seem unrelated. But – and here’s where your brain starts making trouble – you’re usually unaware of just how blinkered you’re being.
Psychologist Robert Wiseman carried out a study where participants were asked to count the number of photos in a paper. Some finished much faster than others… because they spotted the half-page ad saying, “stop reading—there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”
Those who took longer were doing exactly what they were supposed to. They focused on the pictures. And they probably didn’t think they’d missed anything important when they walked away, all 43 diligently noted.
The “we search for what we want to find” bias
You probably know this quote from economist John Kenneth Galbraith: “faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
In other words, when we’ve already decided something, we’ll unconsciously look for things which back us up. It’s quite difficult (but not impossible!) to realise you’re doing that and try to assess the data more objectively.
The “if it reminds me of me, it must be good” bias
This is, unfortunately, a very familiar bias for many of us. The phrase “old boys’ club” comes to mind – or images of boardrooms filled with people who all look suspiciously similar. A lot of businesses now offer unconscious bias training, which tends to target this bias quite heavily, and that’s a great first step. But any leaders wanting to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce need to keep checking themselves for this one.
On a more light-hearted note, Berger and Johnston note that this can have some amusing effects, too. Some studies even suggest that “if your name is Michael, you’re statistically more likely to marry a Michelle than a Brenda.”
The “if I can remember it, it must be important” bias
Whether our memories are reliable has been a popular area of research for a long time. Scientists tend to agree that, in general, “we emphasize events that were either really memorable […] or really recent over things that are likely but not newsworthy.”
So you probably remember what you had for dinner last night, because it’s recent. Or that incredible meal you had at a fancy restaurant three years ago, because it’s memorable. But try to call to mind what you had on Thursday two months ago, and you’ll have a harder time. And that’s fine, so long as you don’t insist that you do remember every single meal, and anyone trying to correct you is wrong…
The “someone must be at fault” bias
To use its technical name, the ‘fundamental attribution error’ is our tendency to explain events with people’s personalities or characters, rather than with situational or environmental factors. We tend to have an easier time imagining the motivations of people than thinking through the effects of a complex system. So it’s no surprise that we put more weight on that when trying to understand why something happened.
As Berger and Johnston explain, this bias can mean we completely miss where something went wrong:
“This isn’t just a problem when it comes to blaming others. It’s also a problem when it comes to fixing problems, because what seems like a people problem can often be a circumstance problem. What looks like a personality problem or interpersonal conflict between two people can actually be an overlapping roles or reward problem. What looks like a failure of two teams to communicate might be a systems problem. What looks like individual irresponsibility for someone who doesn’t fill out her time sheets might be a process efficiency problem.”
The “is this a relationship or just a job?” mindset
Though not a bias per se, leaders still need to pay attention to this. Behavioural economists talk about ‘market relationships’ versus ‘social relationships’ – broadly, doing things for money or doing things for relational good. And in my experience, many leaders are biased towards one or the other when developing their workplace culture and putting benefits in place.
Start-up founders may lean towards the relational model, because for them, their business is not just about the money. It’s about a sense of achievement, pride in their work, the experience of building something good. But that motivation may not be as powerful for other employees, so expecting them to pull all-nighters just because you’re doing it isn’t reasonable.
On the other hand, I’ve seen many leaders in big companies assume that market relationships trump social in their workplaces, underestimating how large a role work plays in many people’s lives. Sure, for some of us decent benefits and a reliable salary are enough. But most of us want more than that – fulfilment, good relationships with our colleagues, a sense that we’re doing something worthwhile.
Even the best leaders aren’t beings of pure logic. And that’s fine! If we can learn to understand our irrationality a bit more, we can create some good from it. As Berger and Johnston put it, “being aware of the ways we are frustratingly and gloriously human gives us a great chance to try to take advantage of all we can do and all we are. And trust us, in a complex world, we need all that we can get.”