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Change the Way You Think: How Cognitive Bias Damages Your Career

Bias. It has almost reached the level of other four-letter words I won’t reference here. Its very mention inspires kneejerk defensiveness. Is it because it automatically invalidates an argument?(If only…)  Or, is it because we are embarrassed that it is completely interwoven into the way we think, despite the fact that we know that it’s wrong?

Biases, as bad as they may be, are as unconscious as breathing. Cognitive bias is equally as unconscious but can have serious repercussions in your life; specifically at work. Bias can lead you to make decisions that will cost you money in both your personal and professional life. You can’t stop them from happening, but we can notice and deal with them. We’d like to let you know how to spot these harmful biases and what to do to alleviate them.

Cognitive Bias

Bias is defined as a prejudice for or against something or someone that is considered unfair. Cognitive bias is using those prejudices as the rationale for bad decisions. A bias is a belief; cognitive bias is a pattern of thinking. Unfortunately, both of these things are natural. As we get information, we can’t help but apply our own past experiences, feelings, and beliefs to it. The problem is that those things can cloud and even mischaracterize the issue.

Perhaps a better way to put it is that cognitive biases are effectively logical shortcuts (that you often don’t even realize you’re taking) that don’t always lead you to the right place. Or better still, the epitome of jumping to conclusions. Here are a few specific biases that can have a profound impact on your day to day life in the workplace:

Confirmation Bias

Everyone suffers from confirmation bias. When you focus on evidence that suggests something you already believed; that’s confirmation bias. It’s a useful way to win an argument. It’s not a great way to get to the truth of a matter. At work, this can take the form of pushing the business in an unprofitable direction based on misinterpreted metrics. It can also have a major effect on recruiting leading to an overly homogenous work environment.

A collaborative team is perhaps the best way to combat confirmation bias. Ideally, everyone brings different life experience to the table. This creates a more comprehensive picture of the issue at hand and more open-minded potential solutions.

Negativity Bias

If you got eight A’s and one C on a report card, what are you going to focus on? The C. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. You see something that needs work and you can give it more attention. While this can be great for self-reflection, it can be terrible in the workplace.

Businesses are about making money, for the purposes of this analogy A’s are more profitable than C’s. Negativity bias will cause you to drop the class you got the C in altogether and throw that investment behind the subjects you’re already getting A’s in, hoping to get super A’s or something. This can lead to missed opportunities and wasted resources. Focusing on how bad the C is could actually keep you from making it better.

This is all to say nothing of morale. If you are in a leadership position and suffer from negativity bias (which most people do), all your subordinates will hear from you is what they are doing wrong. This isn’t to say that critique has no place on the job. But, if all you focus on is the negative, all you’ll have is negativity.

There is an easy fix for this (at least on paper): Celebrate your wins.

Fundamental Attribution Error

This one piggy-backs off of the last one. When something goes wrong, it is built into our very being that we are supposed to find someone to blame for it. This need for a culprit can cause us to miss a more serious overarching problem. The blame game causes people to lose their objectivity.

If someone makes a mistake, fundamental attribution error will cause you to see them as incompetent or lazy. It will keep you from taking into account there was a power outage that day, or an office commotion, or any of an infinite number of other possible explanations.

This can cause you to alienate talented co-workers or ascribe malicious intent where there was none. You don’t want to lose talented employees over perceived slights, do you?

Imagine the shoe on the other foot. It’s amazing how we don’t hold ourselves to the standards we hold others in this regard. Realize that a mistake from someone else is probably not an attack. Think about times you’ve made mistakes. Think about other factors that could have led to the problem.

Ultimately, we can’t stop bias. We can see it for what it is, though, and do our best to not let it sabotage our lives and careers.