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Why Biases Ruin the Workplace

5 min read

In the workplace, employees complain about being in a meeting thinking “Why am I here?” or “I have better things to do than listen to this.” That’s their general bias sneaking up on them. They are automatically disinterested sand not engaged in the material, wasting their time — but more importantly the company’s — because of this attitude.

When we hire new employees, we count on their fresh ideas, new perspectives, and added expertise to help our business grow. In fact, with the right mix of people in the workplace, business won’t just grow, it’ll evolve.

But are we providing an environment where their fresh ideas can be heard?

Many executives will stop an idea from being executed for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the company culture is resistant to change, and often it’s the executives themselves. Personal biases cause many to be short-sighted and at the same time, overlook huge opportunities. However, if your employees recognize these biases, and use proactive solutions to erase them, your company could become a refuge for fresh thinking and new ideas.

“The seven most expensive words in business are: ‘We have always done it this way.’”

– Catherine DeVyre, Author, Speaker, and Australian Executive Woman of the Year

We acquire knowledge when we are attentive to our experience, intelligent in our understanding, and reasonable in our judgment. This is the only way our decisions can be seen as reliable.

According to philosopher Bernard Lonergan, S.J., there are four common biases that prevent insights from emerging:

1. Group Bias

These are the “isms” in our society. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. These “isms” are rampant in organizational life. In the workplace, it can lead to an “us vs. them” mentality between departments, or friction and animosity because of age differences, rival alma maters, even former employers, i.e., “Everyone over at Acme Tech is so full of themselves.”

How to Solve for Group Bias

  • Remove names and college graduation dates from résumés before they get to a hiring manager.
  • Erase “us vs. them” mentality from the workplace. If a project fails, be sure managers don’t go behind closed doors with their team and say, “Well, they should have listened to us.” Have company values that everyone gets behind so it’s not about what your team wants vs. what another team wants, but about what the whole company needs.
  • Create interdepartmental monthly lunches to get to know people from other functions. Getting to know others on a personal level can build authentic relationships.

2. Individual Bias

Individual bias is a fancy way of saying WiiFM (“What’s in it for me?”). People who suffer from this are often labeled as selfish, shrewd, and looking for loopholes so they can exploit others. They will use anyone — clients, coworkers, etc. — as a means to an end that is good for them. Short version? The essential egoist.

How to Solve for Individual Bias

  • If managers need an egoist to cooperate with them, train them to say what’s in it for them (WiiFT) first. By putting things into perspective for your egoist, they will see that cooperation is key for their success, and the company’s.
  • Train managers and employees to show their value, accolades, awards, and intelligence to this person. Have a place on a company blog or intranet to talk about employee’s accomplishments. Many people suffering from individual bias look at everyone else as inferior and not worth their concern. However, if they see fellow employees as counterparts equal to them, they will be open to collaborating more.
  • Build curiosity into your culture. If individuals ask questions about projects — why change is needed, why it’s important to the company as a whole, etc., – people won’t feel on edge when an egoist does the same. By welcoming curiosity (without the culture feeling like a constant interrogation), all employees can have a deeper understanding of everyone’s needs and priorities.

3. General Bias

Think about your days in high school or secondary school. What subject did you just hate? That subject suffered from your general bias to it. In simple terms, general bias is the tension between interested and disinterested knowing. For example, if you hated mathematics, you probably rushed through your homework and paid half-attention during class, watching the second hand tick on the clock until the class was over. As a result, you didn’t allow yourself to be curious about the material. You didn’t get excited about sine, cosine, and quadratic equations like you did science or Shakespeare.

In the workplace, employees complain about being in a meeting thinking “Why am I here?” or “I have better things to do than listen to this.” That’s their general bias sneaking up on them. They are automatically disinterested and not engaged in the material, wasting their time — but more importantly the company’s — because of this attitude.

How to Solve for General Bias

  • Train employees to find out why they are on agenda. Fellow coworkers might want their insight about a current trend, or a status on a project. Knowing why their presence is needed will help them prepare.
  • Train employees to stop using the word “common sense” or “it’s always been done this way” to back up arguments. These should be seen as taboo and aren’t going to allow new ideas to emerge.
  • Remind employees about the importance of body language in meetings. Even though they may be present, posture may indicate you have a general bias. Help to identify and adjust blind spots employees may have in how they carry themselves so speakers will feel that the topic is welcomed, and not a burden.

4. Dramatic Bias

Dramatic bias, simply put, is the way we kid ourselves. The age old “what’s the worst that can happen?” People suffering from dramatic bias will have loads of answers! Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown alludes to this in her TEDx talk: employees will ‘censor’ things to avoid getting insights about themselves that would reveal the ways they fear, disapprove, or even detest. Fear and vulnerability stops us.

To put another way, it’s employees’ unwillingness to be present. They may opt to be blind to a great idea despite the data presented to them. They choose to not understand it data because they’re afraid. Why are they afraid? They might not have the expertise to help the project and are afraid of failing or being “found out.” Or they might be afraid of the project’s cost. Either way, they won’t push to make discoveries about an idea, so insights can’t emerge.

How to Solve for Dramatic Bias

  • Train managers to do a pulse check to see if everyone gets what’s going on during a big announcement. Have them set time aside during 1:1 to re-explain things so everyone can move forward together.
  • Be real. Be authentic that what you do has a real effect on people. If your company messes up, own it and say you’re sorry and you’ll fix it.
  • Celebrate achievements. Some of the best leaders suffer from “Impostor Syndrome.” Managers of these employees should find ways to let employees know how much they appreciate their unique skill sets.

So, that being said, do you notice the 4 biases in your workplace? If so, what do you do to counteract them?



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