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Bias: Actions and reactions in an uncertain world

Dr. Doyin Atewologun

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What do you do when you don’t have all of the information that you need to make a decision? Many of us would like to think that we consciously search for information to fill in the blanks before settling on an answer.


In reality, this isn’t the case: instead, we are much more likely to subconsciously (and, critically, sometimes incorrectly) fill in the gaps because we often don’t even see the gaps in our knowledge in the first place (bias blind spot).


The notion of heuristics and cognitive biases have helped us to explain our tendency to make errors of judgement when making quick decisions in the face of uncertainty.


Heuristics (first coined by Kahneman and Tversky in the 1970s) are short-cuts or “rules of thumb” that help make our decision-making more efficient.


Cognitive biases are the errors that we make because of applying heuristics. Psychologists and behavioural economists have shown that cognitive biases can explain suboptimal individual and group responses to personal, business and social issues ranging from inequality to climate change to the obesity epidemic.


Biases and decision-making 


The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted us into a heightened pace of change. Abrupt disruptions to the status quo, information overload, and generalised anxiety provide additional stressors as employees reorient themselves to new ways of working.


During this uncertainty, our blind spots and biases are more prevalent in our decision-making as we grapple with separating fact from fiction, a desire to make sense of the situation, the need to act quickly and the limits of our own memory. In this article, we want to press the pause button to help you reflect, scrutinise and mitigate potential biases that may ultimately impair decision-making and harm your business.


Below are 5 of the most common biases in business and the impact they may have on your business today:


  1. Affinity bias – a preference for people who we see as similar to ourselves. This tendency can lead to prioritising ‘similar’ others’ needs over the needs of colleagues we see as less similar to ourselves. This can have significant implications for engagement and a sense of belonging. In particular, who do we connect with in times of social distancing and remote working? 
  2. Halo and horns effect – the first positive (or negative) impressions of someone lead to positive (or negative) assumptions about their other attributes. This tendency can lead to skewed perceptions of employees based on irrelevant information and can result in unequal outcomes. In particular, how might social distancing and remote working impact the accuracy of our first impressions? 
  3. Confirmation bias – paying attention to evidence that supports our attitudes or opinion and overlooking evidence that does not. This tendency can lead to suboptimal decisions by failing to consider valid and potentially helpful evidence because it contradicts original opinion. In particular, what information do we seek out and what information do we disseminate in times of information overload through virtual means? 
  4. Self-serving bias and the fundamental attribution error – attributing positive events to our character/ability and negative events to the environment (and vice versa for other people). This tendency can lead to not giving credit where credit is due which can in turn have an impact on the reward and recognition necessary for engagement and motivation. In particular, is there a risk that physical visibility affects how we give credit to ourselves and others? 
  5. Counter-factual alternative – assuming that the information available represents the full picture when evidence to the contrary is not readily available. This tendency can lead to overlooking the bigger picture when trying to draw conclusions, thereby having implications for workplace relationships. How do we know that we have the full picture outside of the informal conversations and behavioural cues of office working? 


Biases in interpersonal interactions


As we embrace virtual working, cognitive biases can have an even greater negative impact on our interpersonal relationships – in particular, on team members, and colleagues from minority underrepresented groups. Social biases are likely to manifest in new ways and embed themselves into the way we work remotely. These could range from checking in with colleagues you are ‘closer to’ more often or not providing an employee with email or telephone feedback because it is more time consuming than saying it face-to-face. These types of bias manifestation are all likely to impact feelings of belonging and career progression. What can you do to ensure that cognitive biases are not creating additional barriers within your organisation? Asking yourself the following questions is a good starting point: 



  • How am I communicating with my team members and/or reports, especially during virtual gatherings? Is the quality and quantity of virtual contact the same for everyone? 
  • What assumptions am I making about my team members and/or reports? What assumptions am I making about individuals who I am being introduced to virtually? (Think about the space you are working in – will that look the same for everyone and does everyone have the same personal responsibilities?) 
  • What is our team’s key method(s), platforms, media and frequency of information sharing – am I paying attention to information from one platform more than another? How can I ensure that information is being shared consistently across the team and that there is equitable access to this information? 
  • Am I effectively communicating my feedback and giving credit appropriately and openly? How is others’ visibility impacting their experience? 



In summary, times of uncertainty and information overload create the perfect opportunity for cognitive biases and blind spots to creep into our decision-making and interpersonal interactions. Take the time to assess the way that you and your team are working both independently and collectively to ensure that all information is shared equally, that all team members are rewarded and recognised, and that decisions are made based on the full picture.


Delta’s team of behavioural experts is ready to support you to further explore your decision-making and interpersonal interactions. We offer Thought Leadership insights and evidence-based webinars on the key business challenges you are facing today in equity, diversity and inclusion. Let us help you keep your people development and ED&I strategies on track with our digital and live virtual learning solutions.

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