4 ways leaders can combat personal biases

Employees and leaders of any company are faced with the challenge of making quick and efficient decisions. While these one-off decisions are undoubtedly important, a recently published Harvard Business Review article reveals that the personal intuition behind the decision-making process is flawed and can actually lead companies astray.

Intuition is shaped by a person’s personal exposure to a topic and associations in their memory. However, when decisions are more fully based on personal biases, and less on logical reasoning, this results in poor decision-making. This process is exacerbated when workers are under pressure, are multi-tasking, or fatigued, and it becomes increasingly crucial to take time to logically evaluate the options of any decision.

“Because most of us tend to be highly overconfident in our estimates, it’s important to ‘nudge’ ourselves to allow for risk and uncertainty,” say authors Soll, Milkman and Payne. They suggest four ideas to help eliminate the influence of personal biases in the work force and help workers be more decision-ready.


  1. Think about the future

Maintaining perspective for what could be in the future is crucial to the work force and what will be beneficial in the long-term.

Make three estimates. In the case of questions needing a numerical response, instead of making a quick one-off decision, get in the routine of attempting to make three estimates for any question at hand. Estimates made should be conservative, probable and high, in order to develop a range for all possible outcomes. This in turn helps leaders to better prepare and plan for events on either end of the spectrum.

Think twice. Second-guess the first judgment. Assume that the first conclusion was wrong, and contemplate what the second resolution would be in the same situation. Even if only as an exercise, giving a second thought to immediate responses will help to train employees to give additional thought before making a decision.

Use pre-mortems. Instead of doing a postmortem to understand past failures, use pre-mortems to identify reasons for possible future failures. “First, [this] tempers optimism, encouraging a more realistic assessment of risk,” write the article’s authors. “Second, it helps you prepare backup plans and exit strategies. Third, it can highlight factors that will influence success or failure, which may increase your ability to control the results.”

Take an outside view. Workers tend to develop tunnel vision and strong biases when they have exerted a significant amount of time working on a project. Complementing this perspective with an outside view will help leaders to consider other ideas and to determine whether or not they should really continue on with their project or original plan, despite how much effort was already spent.


  1. Think about objectives

While caught in a decisive moment, it is easy to only consider the results of a choice on a small scale. Developing a broader perspective of what the company is trying to accomplish will aid in all decision-making processes.

Seek advice. Counsel with another person, get a fresh set of eyes on the problem, bounce ideas off another person, and reason it out together. Having someone else who can present a fresh perspective will allow employees to have a more complete and comprehensive view of what is going to be most beneficial for the company.

Cycle through your objectives. Remember the purpose behind why something is being done. By continually trying to achieve all company objectives, decisions are going to be more directed towards reaching company goals.


  1. Think about options

Attempt to identify a list of best options to a question, ultimately honing down the list to three to five possible solutions. Because a decision is only as good as the best option in the list, be sure to be thorough, open-minded, and focused on the long-term before making a final decision.


Use joint evaluation. Consider what aspects might be missing when considering a decision. Remember that evaluating variables in isolation will not provide accurate results. Think about additional factors that might influence the data and the outcome of the decision that might not have been previously accounted for.

Try the “vanishing options” test. Assume that the company cannot proceed with the current choice and consider what else could be done with the allocated resources.


  1. Fight motivated biases

Present biases afflict most workers as they attempt to focus more on the present rather than on long-term goals and repercussions. Additionally, many workers are affected by cognitive rigidity, or an unwillingness to deviate from preconceived notions. This in turn “gets amplified by time pressure, negative emotions, exhaustion, and other stressors.

Employees are typically unable to see the negative results that come from narrow thinking, so developing tactics, checklists and an increased consciousness to combat these personal biases are all effective ways to become more decision-ready.

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