Biases That Impact Decision Making

Biases That Impact Decision Making
    Dr. Vasundhra Atre
    Communication Coach & Corporate Trainer

    Our personal and professional lives are impacted by the decisions we knowingly and unknowingly take, each day. Some of these have short term consequences while some may haunt us for years to come. The decision-making process is impacted by our biases, both conscious and unconscious. Bias being the prejudice or preconceived notion that we carry about someone or something.

    When the bias is acknowledged, the decisions are taken consciously, taking ‘calculated risks’. We have collected facts, deliberated on them and taken decisions while having given thought to why we are taking the decision, what the possible outcomes could be, including being prepared for the worst.

    It is the ‘unknowing’ or the ‘unconscious biases’, if not consciously acknowledged and addressed, which can cause complications and challenges. These prejudices can prevent one from making choices that may actually be in our better interest.

    So, what are these ‘unconscious biases’, that can impact our decision-making process? Unconscious bias is an automatic response triggered by our brain, resulting in a reaction, when we encounter a certain individual or a group. This is beyond our conscious awareness or control. To be able to control them, we need to first bring them into our awareness.

    In a workplace more often than not a certain a kind of categorisation happens, unknowingly. We tend to ‘categorise’ our colleagues, assign tasks based on what we think a team member can or cannot deliver in terms of detailing, ability to meet time lines or even availability- the ‘unconscious biases’.

    The commonest unconscious biases that leaders need to acknowledge and pay attention to include:

    1. Distance Bias

    By default we tend to give priority to things that are tangible and near us, in terms of time, space, people among others. For e.g. we tend to reach out to team members who are immediately around, rather than involving a team member working remotely.

    Remote functioning has become a norm rather than an exception. This holds true even when we are communicating not only with our teams but also with vendors and clients.

    Break the distance bias and communicate, include them in the discussions and decision making process.

    2. Expedience Bias

    Expedience bias can happen when we take quick decisions without taking time out to receive and understand the complete background and required details of the situation under consideration. Sometimes we use only a single data point or are influenced by opinions or recommendations, while deciding.

    To overcome expediency bias it is important to take time to collect and understand the relevant information; this will ensure that the decision is an informed one.

    3. Experience Bias

    We all have had different life experiences; these tend to define us. Experience bias can occur when we think that our truth is the only truth. We believe that our perspective is the only perspective.

    It is important that we understand that every individual can add value to the decision making process. Different experiences bring different perspectives to the issue under consideration and could offer more options.

    Give everyone a chance; value them for what they bring to the table. Sharing of perspectives allows the decision maker to recalibrate thoughts, gives others an opportunity to understand the thought process of the decision maker, and helps redefine the situation. Focusing on putting the inputs from others first allows a more balanced thinking and strengthens the decision making process.

    4. Familiarity Bias

    Familiarity bias is the preference to stay in the comfort zone and in the process overrate the choices already known to us.

    Teams are always in churn. Some team members have been with us longer than others and there is a comfort in working with them. They understand the unsaid. They deliver the way you want things done. It is easy to assign jobs to them. Sounds familiar? Over a period of time these team members become closer and more trusted, making the other team members feel excluded or non-consequential. In turn they would become non contributors over time.

    Take a pause. Give all team members equal opportunity. It will improve morale and allow new talents to emerge, which will positively impact the desired outcomes.

    5. Safety Bias

    As humans we are worried about incurring a loss of any kind. This is the safety bias. It results in delaying decisions, slowing down the process as all pros and cons are considered and at times the thinking gets into a loop; resulting in no decision making.

    All decisions and actions have consequences. Leadership is about taking responsibility for consequences of decisions. Think before taking decisions, consider possibilities and take the best decision under the circumstances. Yes, decisions change based on the situation; as do the consequences.

    Take a pause and think about yourself as a past self who has already taken a risky decision. This can help to reduce the perception of possible loss.

    6. Similarity Bias

    As humans, we gravitate towards things that mirror us. We tend to prefer things that are like us over things that are different than us.

    This bias needs to be taken into account especially at the time of onboarding and hiring team members, at the time of appraisal, while promotions are under discussion or while assigning projects, among others.

    It could help to define the job and organisational requirements and select those that best meet the requirements in the interest of the organisation. The best fit should be the choice. Be as objective as possible while taking decisions.

    The commonest unconscious biases that leaders need to acknowledge and pay attention to include

    Remember, biases are both a challenge and an opportunity. Balanced well, for leaders and the organisation, it is a chance to improve productivity and participation by creating a positive decision making ecosystem.

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