3 Ways Our Unconscious Biases Prevent Results

In Culture, Organization & Strengths

In the modern world we are asked to take in an enormous amount of information. The average American processes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day (though various channels like text messaging, email, radio, and TV). As our brains process that information – looking for concepts, and shortcuts to understand what it is consuming – our cognitive ability to process with speed can prevent us from seeing things as they really are.

Even the best and most thoughtful of us suffer the effects of cognitive biases. While they can help us process information quickly in dangerous situations as they did our cave-dwelling ancestors (Predator = Danger!), they can also lead to significant errors in judgment in today’s world of business. Science writer and ethicist George Dvorsky catalogs the 12 most common cognitive biases in his thoughtful article on the blog io9.com. I’ve chosen three that I believe are most pernicious in business today:

In-group Bias – Working with different businesses across a variety of industries, we see this phenomenon regularly: a keen propensity to be suspicious of those not like us, and a blind overestimation the abilities of those in our own tribe. Exclusively male boards of directors. Executive teams that read like alumni rosters from the same university’s graduating class. Research shows that diversity – of experience, thoughts, race and gender to name a few characteristics – changes thinking, enhances creativity and encourages the adoption of new perspectives, all which can lead to better problem solving and decision making. To avoid in-group bias, we must not only encourage diversity, but champion the act of inclusion to see the benefits of it.

The Status-Quo Bias – There are two certain truths about business: change will occur, and humans will fear it. Our preference for the current state of affairs may be because of a perception of potential loss, or risk, or regret, and can manifest in business in a multitude of ways, but will always prevent innovation, creativity, progress and growth. The “this is how we’ve always done it” and “it worked before, so it should work now” statements should be challenged, and new thinking recognized and rewarded.

Negativity Bias – People naturally pay more attention (and give more weight to) negative news than positive news. While it may have helped us avoid pain and death when we were Neanderthals wandering the plains, it can seriously impair our ability as modern businesspeople to realize opportunity in the marketplace, and discover groundbreaking ideas. When the negatives are weighted more heavily than the positives, can effective decision making or problem solving occur? Avoiding this bias can also help us get this most out of our teams (and ourselves), as research shows it is dramatically better to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.

While we can not remove cognitive biases entirely, we can be cognizant of them and aware of their inherent problems. We have to give ourselves permission to be wrong and to question our gut before we trust it.

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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.