Blind Spots, Heuristics and Anchors … Oh My!

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By Bill Swift, M. Ed., Leadership Facilitator
Cascade Employers Association

Please Allow Me To Explain

Resolve this year to improve the quality and effectiveness of your workplace conversations by challenging everything. Well, don’t challenge everything. That would take too long. But it may really pay off to work with your supervisory team to improve critical thinking.

When we move into leadership positions, even though our job description may not say it specifically, there is an expectation that we will see the world of work through a more critical eye and help make good, well-informed decisions. Most of us do okay with this, but few of us are formally trained in decision making. And all sorts of workplace activities are influenced by biases we can’t see. Successful leaders create teams that make fewer personnel mistakes in hiring, in employee coaching, and in performance management by confronting attribution bias.

Attribution bias or fundamental attribution error is a catch-all phrase that social psychologists use to explain how our thought processes can lead to misperceptions, mistakes and interpersonal barriers. It breaks down like this: Most humans have a tendency to explain behavior by attributing internal drivers and ignoring situational drivers.

We do this even in the face of clear evidence that situational factors are influencing our employees. The term cognitive misers is used to label this thought short-hand. (The psychologists did not come out and call us lazy thinkers, but this is implied. Apparently we all have too much stuff to process and think about and, so, we take short cuts). Basically, most of us have the tendency to attribute behavior to whatever most easily grabs our attention.

This concept of bias also hangs over so many supervisor coaching moments. I have wanted to write about it for some time, but have hesitated because it’s, well, sort of hard to explain. So, stick with me for a minute here. You just might change the way you see things, the way you approach your employees, and the success you have in understanding them.

Have you heard the term heuristic? It essentially describes the process of approaching problem-solving and decision-making by what gets us there quickly and easily, but often not incorporating logic, analysis and practicality (things that take longer). Studies continue to show that most human beings are lazy thinkers.

In The Undoing Project, a 2017 book, Michael Lewis (the Moneyball guy) gives a great breakdown of the evolving science of behavioral economics – i.e. how we see stuff and how we all make a lot of fundamental mistakes. Numerous examples of heuristics and biases hammer home the point that we often misinterpret what is really going on. The psychologists who put this all together ended up winning the Nobel Prize, so I was willing to pay attention.

If I flip a coin 5 times and it comes up heads all 5, what are the chances on the next flip that it will come up heads? That one is easy for most of us. It’s still a 50/50 proposition. Seems, however, that our blind spots go much deeper than this fairly simple anchor.

One company found that their best sales people had three things going on:

1. they had good objection-answering skills,
2. they had good grooming habits,
3. they dressed conservatively (black shoes).

This really looks like causation, i.e. one thing leading to another. Turns out, upon further inspection, the same three traits were true of their weakest performers. We tend to jump on what is available to explain behavior.

Ever feel like a professional sports scout? “Tell us if you think this candidate will perform well in your department.” Well it turns out the professional scouts make the same attribution errors that we all make when it comes to identifying talent and fit in our organizations. Left to our own devices, we will fall in love with our ideas and push on even in the face of better, sometimes contrary evidence.

So what does this have to do with your leadership team? Well, higher functioning organizations show patterns of interacting in ways that combat these biases. Inviting an “outsider” to your meetings, for instance. (See Ted Talk: Tribal Leadership). Perhaps teaching Performance Review skills that includes a review of common bias patterns. Progressive workplaces are also adding more objective Analytics to their hiring and review processes, such as ©The Predictive Index.

This fall, we had lots and lots of supervisor development sessions where the discussion continued to turn to these assumptions we make about what motivates certain behaviors. Is it a “Generation Thing”? Is it a “Cultural Thing”? Why are my employees behaving this way?

Apparently there are many workplaces that are being challenged with employees who don’t share the same work ethic with their supervisor. Some involved in the discussions were new to supervision, many were the more seasoned leaders. Some of the best “Aha” moments in these trainings are when we begin to break down our blind spots, our guesses, our assumptions and our biases. All of us, new or seasoned, are influenced by an often unseen dynamic that drives miscommunication and misunderstanding. Improvement comes when we build in better processes.

Resolve this year to build in some cross-checking and critical reviews of your hiring, your performance management and decision making. Resolve this year to have Assumption Check on your weekly meeting agenda. Resolve this year to invite some fresh eyes to look with you at old processes. We would love to hear your examples of workplace bias and especially how you are confronting it.

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