Mitigating unconscious thinking errors

In their final feature Mark and Anna Withers set out practical actions that can be taken to mitigate unconscious thinking errors in our decision-making.


Virtually all leaders believe that to stay competitive, their enterprises must learn and improve every day. But often such beliefs just remain good intentions and many companies struggle to become ‘learning organisations’. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Professors Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats1 shared their insights from a decade of research into why organisations don’t learn. They conclude that biases, or thinking errors, which people are barely aware of are to blame for the lack of organisational learning. According to their research it is the work of these unconscious thinking errors that derail many of the costly efforts to turn organisations into learning organisations. They point to the following thinking errors that cause people to:

  1. Inadvertently focus too much on success
  2. Take action too quickly
  3. Try too hard to fit in, and
  4. Depend too much on experts.

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Our Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework, which we have set out in the first three articles in this series, was developed to make it easy for people within organisations to discuss thinking errors in decision-making. Using the findings of the HBR article, the thinking errors that undermine organisational learning are embodied in the characters of The Gambler, The Captain, The Butler, and The Prisoner.

With the help of the Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework you can now investigate decisions from the position of each of the eight characters in a de-personalised and more objective way. Understanding the characters, and being able to challenge them in self and others, is a prerequisite for establishing a learning organisation. A three-step approach surfaces and mitigates these thinking errors that undermine organisational learning and hinder organisations from improving continuously.

Step 1: Equip senior leaders to challenge thinking errors in self and others

As our thinking errors are unconscious, we need to give leaders awareness of what they are and a way to discuss them constructively. The outcomes of this step are to:

  • Make unconscious processes conscious, through setting out research findings and engaging leaders with the characters in the Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework.
  • Give people a language to discuss unconscious thinking errors in a generative way, through use of the Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework to explore decisions from the perspective of each character and complete a human due diligence for key decisions.
  • Equip decision makers and leaders to work more effectively, through challenging unconscious thinking errors in decision-making and governance groups.

Step 2: Create the right environment

To hold generative conversations about our unconscious thinking errors, the right organisational climate needs to be created. To achieve it, we need to:

  • Break patterns of thinking / preconceived ideas so that more diverse views are brought to bear on issues and broader thinking is stimulated.
  • Make it permissible for people to challenge and/or contribute alternative viewpoints without fear.
  • Create mutual accountability for decisions so that everyone has a stake in getting to the best possible outcome.

Creating the right environment is not a quick fix, but there are a number of practical actions that can be taken to accelerate change.

Make it ‘safe’ for people to speak out – organisations must be ‘psychologically safe’ so that people can express themselves. For example, being able to disagree with your boss in a constructive fashion is a cornerstone of psychological safety in organisations. This might mean a shift in working away from ‘command and control’ towards more inclusive patterns of relating to each other, as well as equipping people with the skills to give and receive feedback.

Create mutual accountability around key decisions – decision making groups within organisations need to understand how well they work together and which areas they need to address to improve decision-making. How these groups balance speed, risk and rigour is critical. There is no one right way to improve the effectiveness of these groups but we are able to identify the right support drawing on selected diagnostics along with working directly with these groups. 

Step 3: Make targeted interventions

These interventions are focused specifically on counteracting thinking errors in decision making and may be used with individuals or groups. Three examples are:

  1. Improving governance

Many organisations rely on governance groups in areas such as Risk, IT, Strategy etc. so that there is oversight of operational risk and key investment decisions. There is increasing understanding that a key driver of risk is human decision-making. Using the Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework to equip these groups with the tools to conduct a human due diligence around key decisions and risks is a critical intervention to make.

  1. Increasing challenge

Pre-mortem is a facilitated review held by decision-makers prior to a major decision-making meeting to explore any pre-existing thinking errors linked to each of the eight characters. While counterpoint is a facilitated discussion where other people are invited to work with a decision-making group specifically to challenge and test a decision.

3. Reviewing people processes to increase diversity of voice

This is all about bringing diverse voices into the decision-making process. If organisations have done any work to raise awareness around unconscious bias it is probably in the area of inclusion and diversity. Unconscious biases can have a significant impact on decisions impacting people – sourcing, talent, performance ratings, promotions, reward ad so on – and interventions can be made to help those involved in these key people processes to surface and mitigate these biases.

In the Harvard Business Review article the authors concluded that it may be cheaper and easier in the short term to do nothing about unconscious thinking errors, but they also warn that those short-term approaches will limit the ability of an organisation to learn and, as a result, hinder competitiveness. We know these thinking errors in our decisions exist.

In our framework we have given leaders a way to surface and explore thinking errors. Our 3-step approach helps organisations to embed this learning so that better decisions can be made and improvements made. The critical question remains: What will we do, if anything with this knowledge?


  1. Harvard Business Review, November 2015, Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats, ”Why Organizations Don’t Learn”, p112-118

Mark Withers and Anna Withers are directors of Mightywater Consulting

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