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The 5 Cognitive Biases Holding Executive Leaders Back, and How to Overcome Them

cognitive bias

Cognitive biases aren’t just a problem because they perpetuate the marginalization of underrepresented groups, they also hold back individuals and businesses from success. Here’s a scenario we might see in the workplace. Two new employees are hired: one is man straight out of an Ivy League graduate program. The is a woman who other attended a prestigious state school.

The company’s leaders are also were Ivy League educated. One in particular takes a shine to the male new hire because he reminds him of himself when he was just starting out. The leader had a lot of mentors, so why not take this new hire under his wing? 

The woman, on the other hand, doesn’t have anyone who steps up to mentor her. As a result, she is less familiar with professional development and advancement opportunities. The company also suffers because the woman turned out to have more leadership potential – that she took to another company where she felt more supported. 

This scenario not only illustrates gender bias in the workplace but also demonstrates affinity bias, a type of cognitive bias that often influences mentorship and hiring practices if unchecked. 

What are cognitive biases? 

At their most basic, they are systematic – or repeated – errors in thinking or rationality. Cognitive biases are often connected with stereotypes, preconceived notions, or brain patterns that make you think illogically and, ultimately, make poor choices. 

If leaders want to be truly effective, they need to disrupt their own cognitive biases. Here, we’ll talk about the five cognitive biases that hold leaders back and offer methods to overcome them.

The Five Cognitive Biases Most Likely to Influence Leaders

Affinity Bias

The example above demonstrates affinity bias. This bias is a subliminal preference of someone who is like you over someone who is not. For instance, men might feel more connected to other men, or Ivy League graduates may gravitate towards others who obtained a degree from the same school. 

Workplaces with small numbers of women and people of color in leadership roles can make it more difficult for minorities to advance to leadership roles when this unexamined bias causes leadership teams to promote others like themselves. 

Overcoming Affinity Bias

Columbia Business School Associate Professor of Management Modupe Akinola suggests that companies work to overcome affinity bias by creating “psychologically safe environments where people feel comfortable getting to know each other formally and informally.” This way, colleagues who don’t have shared backgrounds are encouraged to network with each other. 

Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy has less to do with stereotyping. Instead, it considers the common belief that if you have put effort into a project, you should continue with it, even if it is failing. 

For instance, let’s say you’re developing a project that hasn’t taken shape like you hoped it would. If someone had proposed the project in its current form, you wouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place, but now you’ve put in months of effort. Should you put more time and money into remedying the project or scrap it? 

Overcoming the Sunk Cost Fallacy

One way of overcoming this fallacy is to stop thinking about the time and money you have already devoted to a project. Would you keep working on the project based on what you know now? If the answer is no, it’s probably time to take what you learned from the failure and move on.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is perhaps the most prevalent type of cognitive bias. It relies on the idea that people will seek out information that reinforces their existing beliefs, while ignoring input that doesn’t support what they already think.

Leaders may make up their minds too early, before exploring multiple pathways and possibilities. When this happens, you will ignore relevant information that could have helped you create the most effective project plan. 

Overcoming Confirmation Bias

To overcome confirmation bias, you need to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Talk to people you wouldn’t otherwise would, especially those who will challenge you. Search for information outside of your typical channels. Most of all, keep an open mind until you have explored more perspectives than the one you would naturally gravitate towards. 

Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that is actually used by salespeople as a tactic. When we hear a number, we’re more likely to “anchor” onto that figure. We may bargain or haggle, but we probably won’t veer too far from that opening offer. 

That’s what the anchoring effect is all about. Cognitively, we’re most likely to remember and believe the first piece of information we hear. In other words, our brains tend to look for the quickest route to an answer. 

Overcoming the Anchoring Effect

Knowing that we’re most likely to choose the first solution to the problem, a smart method for reducing the anchoring effect is to question every possibility. Asking questions and identifying problems with every possibility is the best way to offset the effects of anchoring bias. 

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental Attribution Error is the belief that the way someone acts demonstrates an innate quality about them. Specifically, you may over assign value to someone’s personal characteristics over the context of a situation. 

Here’s a common instance of Fundamental Attribution Error. A woman is overwhelmed by her children asking for candy at the grocery store. She snaps at the children and yells at them. You jump to the conclusion that she’s a bad mother who yells a lot – even though the same thing has happened to you. This kind of cognitive bias sets you up to judge people by a single action. 

Overcoming Fundamental Attribution Error

The best way to overcome Fundamental Attribution Error in your leadership is to talk to your employees about behaviors that may not be acceptable for you. Rather than suggesting these behaviors are fixed character flaws, dig into the contextual situation. 

For instance, if your employee is always late to work, you might learn that they have a toddler and unreliable childcare. Then, you could work out a schedule where your employee starts work later in the day, and in turn, improves their productivity. 

Disrupting Your Cognitive Biases

What’s most important in overcoming cognitive biases is recognizing that your thinking is flawed. Just because you believe something, that doesn’t make it true. Every person has their own cognitive biases, and if you want to become an equitable, open-minded leader, it’s up to you to determine when and how cognitive biases affect your rationality. 

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