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Thought Leadership

Are You Boss of Your Cognitive Bias?

Business people talking in meeting.

If you are human, cognitive bias comes with the territory. You cannot beat it, but you can fight against it. In a new white paper, we explain why it is particularly important for organizational leaders to understand and check their cognitive biases, especially when making critical decisions.

Cognitive biases present a serious risk to organizational leaders who bear any responsibility for high-level decision-making. Educating yourself and your team on these five common mental traps will help you neutralize them for improved decision-making, team dynamics, and workplace culture.

1) Anchoring Bias

Commonly exploited by expert negotiators, anchoring bias is our tendency to stick with the first thing we hear. You might recognize this bias from salary negotiations or price haggling in which the first number brought to the table influences all subsequent decisions. Anchoring bias can lead to poor judgment when teams get stuck on the first idea presented in a meeting, resulting in other (perhaps stronger) ideas being neglected.

You can resist this bias by deliberately questioning early assumptions.

2) Attentional Bias

This cognitive bias occurs when our inherently limited ability to focus our attention prevents us from examining all possible outcomes before making decisions. A manager who only focuses on quantitative data and ignores or devalues qualitative feedback is demonstrating attentional bias. New leaders are especially vulnerable to this mental trap because they lack previous points of reference.

Mitigate attention bias by practicing mindfulness and intentionally redirecting your focus to broader perspectives and additional information.

3) Availability Bias

Our decisions are largely influenced by recency. An example is a facilities manager who doubles spending on generators shortly after a once-in-a-lifetime storm causes a power outage: The better we remember an event, the more likely we think it will happen again. Leaders who rely too heavily on recall as context for decisions limit their ability to see the bigger picture.

One approach for sidestepping availability bias is to consult with a diverse group of stakeholders so that you arrive at a more representative, and less personal, perspective.

Businessperson sharing ideas during a meeting.

4) Confirmation Bias

The opposite of being open-minded, confirmation bias makes us lean toward what we already believe. This cognitive bias is at play when leaders use customer or market research to merely confirm their existing hunches. Our tendency to fall back on our existing thinking in this way rather than seek out new information and fresh insights especially ramps up when pressure is on and time is tight.

You can bust this cognitive bias by asking disconfirming questions such as, “Why shouldn’t I do it this way?”

5) Commitment Bias

Also known as escalation bias and the sunk cost fallacy, we fall for this cognitive bias when we cling to a failing initiative only because we have already devoted significant time, money, and effort to it. This bias often rears its head in new product development. Managers may receive evidence that a project should be halted due to serious problems like negative market feedback, but choose to forge ahead anyway.

Focusing on future benefits rather than past investments can help you counteract commitment bias.

Rational Leadership

Cognitive biases are universal. However, you can avoid these mental traps through self-awareness, education, and by prioritizing information gathering and careful deliberation over haste and knee-jerk reactions. By encouraging yourself and your team to embrace critical thinking over protecting the status quo, you can lead your organization toward more rational decisions and a more innovative future.

Graphic of the title page of the white paper, “Be Boss of Your Cognitive Bias: A Leader’s Guide to Making Better Decisions”

Learn more about common cognitive biases in the workplace and get tips for neutralizing them in our white paper, "Be Boss of Your Cognitive Bias: A Leader’s Guide to Making Better Decisions."

Download the white paper