Biased? Who, Me?

Posted on April 1, 2009. Filed under: Decision making |

Yes, you!

In the February 2009 Harvard Business Review, Campbell, et. al. wrote an article entitled, “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions.” Their premise is that we are all set up (neurologically – we just can’t help it) to be swayed by often-unrecognized biases. Couldn’t have said it better myself! The key point here is not that we shouldn’t be swayed (remember – we just can’t help it). Rather it is that we need to have ways to recognize our biases and their source so as to make the best possible decisions.

The authors say that, “given the way the brain works, we can’t rely on leaders to spot and safegbuard against their own errors in judgment.”  Leaders need help!  These writers lay out a seven-step “red flag” process that can help assure better decision-making, a process that includes clearly identifying as many options as possible and then looking for any potential conflicts of interest or bias by any of the decision makers regarding those options.  Rest assured that when you look, you will find them.

How does this apply when you’re one of the decision makers in question?  Enroll someone to guide you throught his process.  It may be your executive team.  It may be your executive coach.  In any case, you will need someone you trust to support you through this process.  You simply won’t see your own biases because they reside within your blind spot.  We can’t see what we can’t see.

One of my favorite quotes is from my dear friend and mentor, K. Bradford Brown:  “I have eyes so I can see you.  You have eyes so I can see me.”

Recently, I coached one of my clients about the extent of his responsibility/duty to his clients regarding advocacy. It seems this client is in the final phase of merging with another firm. However, there is an open issue about funds that haven’t been released to his clients and, when he leaves, he will no longer have the ability to do anything to help his clients. So he is stuck for as long as it takes because of his emotional ties. Does he go ahead with the merger? Does he wait, possibly as long as a year, so he can remain in a position to step in if necessary to help his clients resolve this? There is no one answer that would be universally right in such a situation. It seems that either way, he will lose something that is important to him.

In exploring this together, my client came to realize the emotional “hook” (bias) in both scenarios! He was hooked by his beliefs that he had promised to “take care of his clients needs no matter what” and that by merging with the other firm, “all [his] stress with his work would be resolved and he would be free.” Once those beliefs were revealed, he could explore them more rationally and discern what was true. In fact, he came to realize that he isn’t obligated to the extent that he couldn’t make the best business choice (in merging) for himself and his clients, nor will merging provide him with all the freedom he is imagining. From this more objective perspective, he could begin by identifying his ideal outcome for all concerned and work toward creating that.

Reality is, well, reality. It is as it is. The more conscious we are of our underlying motivations in decision making, the clearer and more effective our decisions will be. Bias is always lurking. We can’t help but see things through our own filters of self-interest, skewed observations and false interpretations. The key is to know that is always in play and to seek guidance to identify and account for it when making important decisions.





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