Overcome These 5 Biases to be a Better Leader

Either Manage Them or They’ll Manage You

Jake Wilder
Jul 16, 2018 · 10 min read
Photo by Isaac Davis on Unsplash

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better,” Ed Catmull wrote, describing how people are ultimately more important than ideas.

As leaders, one of our core responsibilities is to find and develop top talent. To first and foremost, get the people right. We can’t accomplish great things without great people. It simply will not happen.

People want to be around a leader who helps them grow. They want to work with a leader who takes an active stake in their development. And one who helps them accomplish greater things than they thought themselves capable of. That’s what makes work exciting. It’s what leads to engaged employees.

But while every leader wants to develop people, many end up falling short. Not due to a lack of effort, but because they fail to recognize key development needs. And they miss opportunities to help people grow.

The good news is this is fully preventable. We just need to get more control over our own minds.

Whether We Realize It or Not, We’re All Biased

“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,” wrote Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in describing how internal biases shape our beliefs and encourage our own minds to mislead us.

We’re used to associating biases with discrimination and prejudice. But the work of Kahneman and Amos Tversky repeatedly showed that we’re all susceptible to bias in some way.

Each of our minds is constantly looking to conserve energy. So we develop mental shortcuts to more easily process new information and make difficult decisions. But while these heuristics and biases do reduce our cognitive burden, they also result in poor judgments.

And as leaders, these judgments often affect how we assess and develop personnel, thereby limiting the effectiveness of both our leadership and our organizations.

If we hope to develop people and build the best teams, we have an obligation to recognize these biases and account for them. As the English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford wrote in his 1877 essay, The Ethics of Belief,

And while there’s no shortage of heuristics that impact our decision-making, in my experience there are a couple which repeatedly impact personnel development — and limit a leader’s overall effectiveness. So we all get to choose: we can manage them — or they can manage us.

Halo Effect

In a classic study, Solomon Asch described two people and asked participants what they thought of their personalities. What do you think of Alan and Ben?

Alan: intelligent — industrious — impulsive — critical — stubborn — envious

Ben: envious — stubborn — critical — impulsive — industrious — intelligent

If you’re like most people, you saw Alan much more positively than Ben. Even though the exact same traits are listed for each person. As Kahneman described,

A halo effect occurs when one positive feature dominates how we view someone, causing us to excuse negative tendencies and overlook key weaknesses.

In these situations, we overlook opportunities for people to grow. And we select candidates based on a limited set of characteristics.

Kahneman’s advice on overcoming the halo effect focuses on “decorrelating error.” Simply put, find alternative viewpoints and perspectives to balance your own thoughts. While individual views may be biased, taken collectively, the average input of knowledgeable peers tends to be much more accurate.

Availability Bias

Availability bias causes us to overly value experiences that have happened recently and are more available in our memory.

We tend to remember major events more so than our typical day-to-day activities. And recent instances are more retrievable from our memory than more distant examples. Consequently, when we try to recall periods of performance, our views are swayed by those events that most vividly come to mind. And we project those recollections across the entire period.

One of my favorite examples is how sharks actually save swimmers’ lives. As Freeman Dyson wrote,

Similarly, when leaders assess individuals from memory, they overly weight the most retrievable instances. Whether these include major events or just more recent events, the result is that a small subset of behaviors is inaccurately extrapolated across a larger period.

To counteract this bias, try to assess performance more frequently. Replace the outdated model of annual performance assessments with monthly or quarterly reviews. People then gain much more frequent feedback and have many more opportunities to improve.

Additionally, we should develop (and share!) objective criteria for people’s success. Having a specific set of criteria removes the subjectivity of remembered interactions and focuses the assessments on actual results.

Confirmation Bias

For anyone who’s seen two people look at the same evidence, yet hold to opposing views on a subject, they’ve witnessed confirmation bias. It reflects our tendency to selectively take in information that confirms our existing beliefs, while rejecting information that contradicts them.

It plays on our desire for consistency. We tend to associate inconsistency with indecisiveness and a lack of reliability. While consistency is correlated with stability and rationality.

Plus, our minds are always looking for potential shortcuts and ways to save energy. As Robert Cialdini described in Influence,

In a world that sees changing your mind as a weakness, confirmation bias presents a significant threat. It keeps conservative voters from recognizing past judgment errors and in the area of personnel development, it causes us to either overlook negative qualities or fail to recognize a struggling performer’s attempts to improve.

To counteract this bias, we need to separate our desire to be right from our desire to have been right. As Willard V. Quine and J.S. Ullian wrote in The Web of Belief,

We need to actively seek out evidence that challenges our initial impressions. Constantly asking ourselves, “What would I need to see to change my mind?” alters the framework of how we look at potential evidence.

Above all, we need to remember the fifth tenet of Carl Sagan’s brilliant Baloney Detection Kit,“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”

Narrative Fallacy

“Oh, let’s not be petty, seeking sincerity in memoirs doesn’t make much sense,” wrote the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, adding: “It’s worth asking what version of his self and world the author’s chosen — since there’s always room for choice.”

We all tell ourselves stories. It’s often how we both make sense of the world and keep ourselves entertained.

In All Marketers are Liars, Seth Godin highlights the power of storytelling to influence our behaviors,

Similarly, when we evaluate people, we prefer to tell a story. We tell it to ourselves, our bosses, and our peers. When we’re considering hiring or promoting someone, we’re less looking for the best candidate as the one who helps us tell the best story.

The problem comes when the more exciting story clashes with the one that’s best for our company. For instance, which story sounds more exciting: the employee who dutifully comes in and handles all of her responsibilities or the one who is constantly saving the day and resolving critical issues?

We like the excitement of resolving critical problems. It makes a better story. Yet this leads many companies to reward late stage heroics even when the issue was created by the same employee’s poor practices. Whereas the employees who resolve issues before they arise go largely unnoticed.

When companies celebrate problem solvers, but don’t appreciate problem preventers, they only encourage people to allow small problems to escalate before solving them.

To counteract this fallacy, we should identify objective criteria for success in advance. Get up-front buy-in from employees on their own expectation for success and the method for measuring that performance. When everyone’s performance standards align with the company’s mission, it’s much easier to make sure we’re reinforcing the best behaviors. And we can reduce the subjectivity that comes with narrative fallacy.

Multiplicative Systems

Quick, what’s 365 x 24 x 60 x 60 x 0?

Hopefully you realized the answer before switching to your calculator app. We’ve all learned that anything times zero is zero — and we’re well prepared for pop math quizzes on the subject. But too often we fail to see how these multiplicative systems apply to leadership.

Your car has multiple redundancies and safety features. Yet the failure of a key component will impair the function of the entire design. If a tire blows out, a healthy transmission is little compensation. If the engine overheats, the quality of the suspension doesn’t matter. Each of these features offers a potential zero that throws off the entire system.

In this way, your car is a multiplicative system as opposed to an additive system. The functionality of each feature has multiplicative influence instead of additive.

This same logic applies to businesses as well. As Shane Parrish described within his incredibly useful Farnam Street mental models,

When considering personnel development, it’s a similar issue. We frequently treat people’s traits and abilities as additive components. When in actuality, most of our strengths and weaknesses fall within multiplicative variables.

All the work ethic and intelligence in the world doesn’t matter if someone lacks integrity. And no amount of charisma will account for someone who makes enemies with every interaction.

The large majority of our skills are interdependent, so improving critical weaknesses — like relationship building, emotional intelligence, sales, project planning, performance execution, and influence — often have a much broader impact than simply doubling down on one specific strength.

James Altucher refers to these as micro-skills that have broad-based applicability across multiple fields. And Scott Adams writes how each new skill effectively doubles your chance for success.

Too many leaders either blindly follow the strengths-based leadership dogma or aim for a well-rounded skill set that trends toward mediocrity. Instead, take the time to recognize which traits are going to have multiplicative influence. Because in a world of incremental growth, true leaders look for the 10x opportunities.

Start Managing Your Biases Today

We’re usually adept at recognizing biases in other people. Yet we tend to believe that these same heuristics don’t apply to ourselves. We think that our own minds are somehow impervious to these documented tendencies.

The truth is we all have some level of bias. Equipped with brains that are constantly looking to conserve energy, we all develop our own mental shortcuts.

The key is how we recognize and manage them. Because if you aren’t managing them, they’re likely managing you.

Thanks, as always, for reading. If you enjoyed this or have any suggestions, please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!


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