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5 Ways to Beat Bias in the Workplace

Updated: Jan 31

As amazing and complex as the brain is, sometimes we create our own subjective reality from unconscious bias rather than objective data. We don’t mean to do it and we often don’t even know we are doing it. But we all do it– and it often leads us away from rational judgment and sound conclusions and toward inaccurate, incomplete or counterproductive decisions.

Unconscious bias has been identified, observed and validated in brain studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology, and it is now acknowledged by psychologists and neuroscientists as real and measurable. Cognitive biases are unconscious processes that influence and inform our behavior and decision-making without us even knowing it's happening.

Recent research now identifies how these biases impact team dynamics and group decision-making and can even sabotage team success. Our workplace is affected by bias because we hire people, collaborate with them, and even fire them based on our judgments and perceptions. And, many times those judgments and perceptions are faulty. If our perceptions are faulty, our decisions will be, too.

Only when we understand and acknowledge individual bias as well as how it collectively impacts the entire team can an organization create an inclusive culture, maximize innovation and creativity, foster effective collaboration and communication, and engage and retain employees.

In team-based tasks or discussions, there are a few simple rules you can put in place so that you don’t automatically dismiss the best ideas or jump to poor decisions. Here are 5 strategies that can help your team overcome the influence of cognitive biases and groupthink.

1. Two-Minute Think Tank: Start or end your meeting giving each person two minutes to share his or her position on the given topic as well as key points to support that position. Use a timer to communicate that everyone has the same amount of “airtime” and there are clear expectations for everyone to participate.

2. Leaders Speak Last: Great leaders know that they don’t always have the best ideas. But some of the best employees will squash their own great ideas to support their leader. Establishing the rule that leaders speak last communicates that the leader doesn’t have all the answers and is open and receptive to diverse perspectives.

3. The Worst First: Start your brainstorming session by generating a list of the worst ideas supported by reasons why they are the worst. Ask each team member to identify the worst possibleidea – that is the worst idea that may, at first glance, seem like a plausible solution. These are the ideas that any number of constituents may shoot down for any number of reasons (e.g., cost prohibitive, brand misalignment, unsustainable, etc.). Maybe these are ideas that have been previously discussed. This is not for a “thin-skinned” team, but it is a great way to counter the group optimism effect and identify potential obstacles before they derail a project or cost a lot of money to fix down the road.

4. Divide and Conquer: Chunk the topic at hand into four or five subtopics and assign each to a small group or individual. This makes everyone accountable for one piece of the project and gives everyone a sense of responsibility to the team. It also communicates the notion that “we are all experts of something but none of us are experts in everything.”

5. Glass Half-Empty: Once you’ve landed on a decision, ask every member of the group to share an opposing opinion to test the strength of the position. This forces people to look past optimistic groupthink and poke holes in the decision. The purpose is not to persuade the group into a different position. The purpose is to confirm that the decision is sound, substantiated, and supported with data. Identifying flaws is not a natural tendency – especially in highly collaborative groups. This practice can often save invaluable time, money, and effort on the backend while reinforcing collective buy-in and accountability.

The bottom line is that the best learning is learning just how much we do not know and filling those gaps of knowledge with the expertise around you. Ignorance may be bliss, but only to the ignorant. It is costly and dangerous to those who recognize how much they do not know.

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