Leadership Looks Like Outsmarting Our Biases

August 10, 2021
Leadership Lessons

Turns out, we do use 100 percent of our brains. If you’re anything like me, you spent a substantial chunk of your childhood convinced human brain power hovers around 10 percent. Though neuroscientists disproved this idea long ago, it’s a myth that just won’t die. It’s one of those things we hear so often, we can’t help but believe it – a phenomenon known as the illusory truth effect. This tendency to believe false information after repeated exposure to it is one of those tricks of the brain known as a cognitive bias.  

Researchers have documented nearly 200 different cognitive biases – decision-making shortcuts our brains employ to save much-needed energy. But, those energy-savings often come at a cost. Cognitive biases can lead us to make bad decisions – like finishing a terrible book because we’ve already invested time starting it (the sunk cost fallacy) or opting to binge-watch reruns instead of helping out our future self by beginning that looming project (present bias).   

And, while we’ve likely done one or both of those things and wound up hurting only ourselves, cognitive biases can also lead us to make decisions that unwittingly hurt other people. Running unchecked, our unconscious brains will inevitably lead us to do things that don’t align with our stated beliefs and values. For example, a team purporting to highly value collaboration and innovation may find itself favoring ideas and opinions of senior team members, even while other team members’ contributions are more creative and relevant to the problem at hand (authority bias). Or, a hiring manager who claims to value diversity may reject a highly qualified candidate based on nothing more than a gut feeling that she just wasn’t the right “culture fit” (in-group bias).  

This mismatch between our stated values and real-life actions erodes our integrity, which has huge implications for our ability to lead others. Integrity is often cited as the top trait effective leaders possess, and serves as the foundation that makes trust building, innovation and collaboration possible – which is why its key to our Principles of Doing that we teach and lead with. If we want to operate with integrity – and be more effective leaders – we have to narrow the gap between what we say we believe and what we actually do.  

We’ll never rid ourselves completely of cognitive biases – our brains are hardwired to use them. But, when we’re making decisions that impact other people, we have an obligation to zoom out and make sure we have processes in place to ensure we’re not letting our unconscious mind lead us to the wrong decision. That might look like revamping our hiring practices to include concrete interview questions and standard evaluation criteria, effectively controlling for in-group bias. Or, that might look like a classroom teacher using an external system to randomly and fairly call on students, rather than making quick decisions based on unconscious stereotypes – a strategy I learned the value of firsthand, after catching myself making unfair and incorrect assumptions about students as a first-year teacher. If you’re interested in hearing more about that experience, check out this video.  

If we’re serious about living out our values, we need to take time to examine our biases and take steps to counter them. To get started, here’s a list of 24 common cognitive biases. As you read through the definitions, which one stands out to you as something you’ve recently struggled with? Think of a concrete action you can take to avoid this bias in the future and commit to trying it. Your integrity – and your future self – will thank you.  

Michelli Castañeda is a leadership development manager at Valley Leadership, leading VL’s Catalyze.

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