Unlocking unconscious bias in decision making

In the first of a series of articles on decision making Mark and Anna Withers introduce us to the eight characters in our head responsible for failure

Talking about failure is fashionable these days. Silicon Valley’s ‘fail fast, fail often‘ philosophy has become a battle cry for those seeking to create learning organisations. Failure is fine so long as we are able to actually learn from our mistakes and ability to learn presupposes that we have a proper understanding of what went wrong in the first place.

But what if the learning we have gained through the painful experience of failure is dangerously distorted? Have you ever wondered why we often return to the same issues time after time? For instance, why sales teams sell work that cannot possibly be delivered profitably; or restructurings that absorb so much organisational energy but do little more than rearrange the deck chairs; or the all too frequent cost overruns in projects; or the budgeting cycle that always requires cost cutting in the third quarter. There are many such examples and they all point to a failure without organisational learning.

Support effective individual and organisational learning is a huge issue for the L&D community. A vast body of research in the fields of cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience sheds light on how chronic failures occur. These research findings challenge some of the foundational principles of L&D. In the same way that we can be misled by optical illusions, we can also fall prey to distortions in our perception of situations.

This body of research points to over 150 distortions – which academics call unconscious biases or thinking errors in decision-making. To make matters worse these thinking errors operate outside our conscious awareness. Thinking errors slip in ‘under the radar’ and awareness of how we can fall prey to these unconscious forces can make a significant difference to the way we learn and prevent errors in the future.

The problem practitioners face is that this compelling research hasn’t been translated into a language decision-makers can use. We can’t hold 150 thinking errors front of mind. We don’t have a way of discussing these biases in a generative way. We often don’t have the right organisational environment where people feel safe to speak honestly and take mutual accountability for decisions made. As a consequence, organisations have not had the opportunity to learn and embed this research to drive more robust decision-making and mitigate the impact of sub-optimal decisions hitting the bottom line.

Bridging this gap between knowing about this problem and doing something about it has been the focus of our research over the past few years. The Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework now provides decision-makers at all organisational levels and practitioners in the field of learning with a language to surface the unconscious at work. This approach has three elements and the most common thinking errors can be clustered under four headings:

1. Relationships (our strong positive or negative attachments to people, objects, symbols or ideas);
2. Self- Interest (our pursuit of self-interest through personal gain, pursuit of personal power and protection of personal reputation);
3. Shortcuts (where we use cues to speed up our decisions typically through judging how information is presented or looking to verify pre-existing views) and
4. Knowledge/experience (the misapplication of past learning and over-reliance on expert knowledge).

These thinking errors are risks, because they distort our decisions and they are hidden because they operate at the unconscious level. You may have seen the recent movie Inside Out. In this popular animation emotions, which are also internal processes just like unconscious biases, are shown as individual characters. The film‘s strap line is ‘Meet the little voices inside your head’. The framework does a similar thing – embodying common thinking errors into eight characters that reside inside our heads and are responsible for chronic failures in organisations. Parts two and three of this series will explore these characters in more detail, but in summary meet:

• The Writer – writes scripts about current choices through the lens of past relationships.
• The Knight – defends attachments and relationships we have forged, often to a point that defies the evidence.
• The Gambler – manipulates situations to our own advantage through displaying overconfidence and over-optimism concerning the outcome of the situation.
• The Butler – takes a passive role by being subservient to those who have power and serving up what those with power want.
• The Judge – zooms in on information that elicits an emotional response from us and, as a result, rates this information as more significant.
• The Captain – selects information to confirm an already predetermined decision.
• The Archivist – categorises a situation with reference to past experience only.
• The Prisoner – interprets a situation from the vantage point of our own world view or expertise.

These characters help us to explore decisions from the position of each in a depersonalised and more objective way. Through these characters we can look at how they have undermined success. Breaking habitual patterns of thinking can offer the possibility of better future outcomes.

Third, we help leaders create an environment where decisions and failures can be discussed honestly. Creating a culture where people feel safe to speak out and where there is mutual accountability for decisions made as key to mitigating the impact of thinking errors on our decisions and for organisational learning. How to do this will be the focus of part four in this series.

You may ask: “Is this just psychobabble?” Absolutely not! The research of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and many others provides compelling evidence that we aren’t as objective or rational in our decision-making as we would like to believe.

The Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework offers L&D professionals a sbreakthrough in helping leaders and managers to understand these unconscious forces that so often create failures in organisations. Understanding these unconscious forces through the eight characters, and tackling them as part of the learning cycle, should become a well-used tool in the L&D toolbox.



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