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Overcoming Biased Decision Making

Naveed Usman

March 08, 2019

The Setup

I would ask you to consider how many decisions you make every day personally and professionally, but that might be a bit overwhelming. However, asking you to consider the bias behind how you make decisions may prove to be more productive. It’s nearly unavoidable. We humans carry bias, known and unknown, that impact our decision making processes constantly.

On episode twelve of the 1 to 10 Podcast, I had the opportunity to sit down with an old friend and colleague, the venerable, Eric Sharp. Eric is the Founder and CEO of Protofuse, a B2B Marketing Agency focused on growing technology-based companies, about the various bias traps we as executives and knowledge workers regularly fall into, and some practical tips on how best to avoid them.

All but the most stubborn of us can agree that we are biased in some way, but we often fail to grasp how these biases may adversely impact our business. In the podcast, I cite the timeless Harvard Business Review article, The Hidden Traps in Decision Making, that clearly defines eight different types of traps that managers and leaders regularly face.

  1. Anchoring Trap
  2. Status-Quo Trap
  3. Sunk-Cost Trap
  4. Confirming-Evidence Trap
  5. Framing Trap
  6. Overconfidence Trap
  7. Prudence Trap
  8. Recallability Trap

The HBR article aptly articulates many of the problems that we all encounter, and provides a useful framework for how to identify and avoid such traps. While being a leader means learning from our mistakes, many of us seek out ways to avoid making mistakes in the first place. Failing to address biases in certain situations can result in repeating poor decisions.

Keep in mind that being stuck in a single trap is one thing, perhaps easily identifiable and avoidable. But many of these traps are a combination of problems; they stack on one another, further complicating heuristics. It’s difficult for us to see our own bias. It’s like trying to chew on your own teeth. More often, we need an external source to “poke” at us in order to expose such biases.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two distinct methods that our brain uses to process the world, which he defines as Systems 1 and 2. System 1 is this “lizard brain” that is always on by default; and is the most prevalent. It’s how we quickly analyze the world, and where much of our biases lay dormant. System 2 is the slow, deliberate, and methodical thinking where you can relax, expand and become more thoughtful. These two are constantly at odds with one another. And because System 1 happens by default, the inability to recognize biases, more often, is the unfortunate byproduct.

The Solution

Simply put, we need others in our trusted network to regularly (and politely) point our biases out to us. In the context of making business decisions, often it’s simply a matter of empowering members of the leadership team to have the courage to call-out the culprits. Sadly, unrecognized biases can lead to flawed decision making, which typically ends up as a silent killer to most organizations. They’re long and slow, and usually unnoticed. This whole idea also effects more than just our professional careers. It happens outside of the workplace, at home with our kids, our spouses and friends alike. Avoiding bias traps quickly becomes more than just improving business outcomes. Handling biases, it seems, improves both our professional and our personal lives.