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Mind Your Mind: Does Bias Drive Your Decisions?

It’s a scenario familiar to most of us: it’s time for a team meeting, and an important decision is on the table. You grab a coffee and head for the meeting room. Do you anticipate that:

  1. the most senior/confident/vocal participants will make the decision and everyone else will murmur consent
  2. the decision has already been made, despite a complete lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders
  3. a robust debate will be had, conflicting views will be aired, and adequate time will be taken to explore evidence supporting different options.

If your team’s decision-making process is characterised by number 3. – congratulations – you’re in the minority of groups who manage to avoid groupthink, one of the cognitive biases that plagues decision-making in organisations (and pretty much everywhere else!).

Life is so much easier when everyone agrees. No one gets wound up. You don’t have to explain or justify your views. You can move on to the next agenda item – and maybe even finish the meeting on time. But the pressure to achieve consensus in groups often means that crucial evidence, serious doubts and unpopular perspectives are overlooked; indeed, there is usually implicit pressure to stay quiet if those around you are nodding their heads in unison.

We often seem to overlook that the whole point of group decision-making is to harness the collective cognitive power of the group. The result? Not always, but all-too-often, decisions that fail to create the desired outcome. Decisions that, only months later, lead to furrowed brows and mutterings of ‘ what were they thinking?!’ Decisions that, even as they’re nodding their agreement, those around the table know are sub-optimal.

Groupthink is an example of an unconscious bias – an automatic thinking process that occurs without our knowledge. The system responsible for automatic thinking is our unconscious cognition. While bias may be undesirable in decision-making, it’s important to remember that unconscious cognition is essential to human functioning; it’s effortless, lightning-quick, and phenomenally effective at allowing us to multitask. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to recognise faces, identify the thing with four wheels as a car nor dodge a wayward cricket ball.

In contrast, our conscious cognition is effortful, deliberate, logical and preferences accuracy over speed. We need it to proof read a report, have a meaningful conversation and put together an IKEA bookshelf. And, fortunately, when we know our unconscious cognition is likely to trip us up, we can put our conscious mind in charge of processes to limit the damage.

Where decision-making is concerned, research demonstrates that our unconscious cognition can be particularly vexatious. It leads us to seek out information that confirms our existing views, and to ignore contradictory evidence ( confirmation bias). It makes us favour opinions coming from those we like (halo bias) over those we dislike. And, time and again, it drives us to overestimate our own capabilities in relation to others’ (overconfidence bias). For example, how many people do you think answer ‘yes’ to the question: ‘Are you a better driver than the majority of the population?’.

We can’t eliminate our biases, but by learning how our unconscious cognition operates, we can minimise its impact on decision-making. To illustrate, let’s return to our team meeting. If you think your team is at risk of making poor decisions due to groupthink, try the following techniques to minimise the risk of bias:

  1. Nominate a senior person to play ‘Devil’s Advocate’. The Devil’s Advocate critiques recommendations presented by other group members, regardless of their seniority.
  2. Undertake a ‘pre-mortem’. Ask yourselves: ‘If this decision has been a spectacular failure in a year’s time, why could that be?’. This gives you an opportunity to explore issues that may have been overlooked.
  3. Ensure participation. Ask the question: ‘Have we heard from all the people we need to hear from? If not, why not?’.

If you’re interested in tackling unconscious bias in decision-making in your workplace we’d love to talk about how we can help! 

Anna Lee