Improving Leader’s Decision Making by Removing Biases

Heather Gordon

Making decisions is one of the most important and frequent activities leaders do. In the current environment, leaders are having to make decisions constantly, from managing a remote workforce, reducing costs and generating revenue, hiring in a virtual environment, to most recently addressing long-standing equality and diversity issues. The stakes have never been higher for CEO’s and senior leaders as their decisions are not only impacting business but also the community, safety, and the well-being of others, and related social injustice matters.

When we make decisions, behavioral science shows how we don’t give each decision we make equal attention; we take mental shortcuts, aka ‘biases’. These biases can help us to make the thousands of small decisions we make in a day, but often we over-rely on bias when we should be mitigating them in order to improve decisions. Despite their best intentions, leaders and management teams are not immune to such biases. Furthermore, in stressful or unprecedented times, science shows these biases can be relied on even more to expedite decision making, often without all of the relevant information, and affect the quality of decisions made. So the question is, what is a leader to do when she or he is unsure if biases are adversely influencing their decision and there are simply no playbooks to help?

Decision Biases

Below are common sources of bias that can impact any leader’s decision making or judgment:

  • Sticking with prior decisions — The conservatism bias states that we tend to believe prior evidence even when new, contradictory evidence has emerged. “Out with the old, in with the new” is a hard approach for our brains to process, especially when faced with decisions we haven’t faced before.
  • Seeking more and more information — Information bias is the tendency to seek more information, even when it isn’t relevant, and does not affect our actions. The old adage of analysis paralysis comes into play here, and it often results in the stalling of decisions.
  • Letting emotions cloud judgment — With the affect heuristic bias, we let our current emotions influence our decisions and focus. In our current environment, more than likely your emotions may be slightly more volatile than normal, and this affects your ability to objectively evaluate information.
  • Similar to me — It is human nature to be more comfortable with people like ourselves. Cognitive science has actually shown how our brains have different neural sensitivities for those who seem like us, naturally creating a comfort and ingroup status. Obviously, this comes up often with hiring decisions, and overcoming it often involves very deliberate and scientifically proven strategies.

How to Address:

Research contends that the first step to eliminating such biases is acknowledging you have them. However, as anyone knows who has tried to change a behavior, simply acknowledging you have a bias isn’t enough.

At Summit, we have been coaching and advising leaders and management teams on how to make more effective decisions, particularly when in crises and in the virtual environment:

  • Decision-making protocols. We often work with management teams to co-create specific protocols for how decisions are made. As a team, come together to layout the decision-making process you expect of each other and reference it at the beginning of each meeting.
  • Assign prework. Assignments prior to meetings are a best practice for both the in-person and virtual environments. Make sure teammates do their homework to consider alternatives, challenges, and research the facts before the meeting and come prepared to share.
  • Call each other out. It takes guts to call out a peer, or even sometimes a boss, as having a potential decision-making bias. Start the beginning of the meeting saying it is a safe zone to call each other out if you think a decision bias might be impacting someone’s perspective or decision – even if you are the one that needs to be called out. It is often easier to see biases in others, as compared to seeing our own.
  • Ensure people involved in a decision have different points of view/perspectives. Much research has shown how diversity of thought can lend itself to better decision making. If you have too much similar thinking, assign someone as the devil’s advocate to come up with alternatives. Similarly, having multiple people evaluate a candidate for a hiring decision and even outside objective parties leveraging assessments and other tools can help to reduce the likelihood of hiring someone ‘similar’ to you.
  • Use virtual to your advantage. Take the pulse of the ‘room’. This is actually a benefit of virtual meetings in that it is easy to use polling and voting devices to get everyone’s opinions and thoughts quickly, even anonymously when needed.

During this time, there is no business as usual. Leaders are making more decisions, with less information and in unprecedented situations. By leveraging others we can help make more sound decisions and create the playbook needed to ensure we don’t allow our biases and blind spots get in the way. Effective decision making is a balanced combination of smarts, knowledge, self-awareness, and inclusions of others.