Managing the Agile Workforce – Chapter 6: Cognitive Bias

If you are following this blog series on Managing the Agile Workforce, hopefully you’ll be actively considering the issues raised, and thinking about what you can do with your colleagues to safeguard the best aspects of your working relationships whilst you explore agile working. While there are many aspects that are obvious and we can readily observe when we are together (and appreciate the lack of when we’re apart), the topic of this blog is more subtle, and far less talked about. Bias.

What is bias?

Bias is an inclination or preference that influences human judgment from being balanced or fair. It was long believed that humans make rational decisions based on experience, knowledge acquired through education, and/or other sources of information. However, in the past 50 years research has repeatedly demonstrated that judgment is highly susceptible to systematic errors – cognitive and information-processing limits make us prone to biases that have negative effects on the quality of the decisions we make.

Notably, there are four Nobel Prizes awarded to researchers whose scientific work clearly demonstrates that human judgment systematically deviates from rationality (Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, Robert Shiller and in 2017 Richard Thaler). This is not a conscious, deliberate process, but rather the inevitable result of the way our brains are wired. We are predisposed to:

  • see order and causal relations in the world
  • be overly optimistic
  • be overly confident
  • process information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs, expectations, and assumptions

As a result, bias is “more influential than you think, and is the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make” (Daniel Kahneman: “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, 2011).

Over 100 types of bias!

There are many different types of cognitive biases – Wikipedia lists well over 100, some with exotic names like the “Cheerleader Effect” (the tendency for people to appear more attractive in a group than in isolation ), the “Gambler’s Fallacy” (the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged), or the “Semmelweis Reflex” (the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm).

Of the 10 most pervasive cognitive biases, five are summarised below:

  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to focus, interpret, weigh, and remember information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs and assumptions.
  • Authority bias: the tendency to over-value the opinion of someone who is seen as an authority. As a result, we tend to be less critical when an “authority” makes a claim.
  • In-group bias: the tendency to favour members of our own group over members of other groups.
  • Fundamental attribution error: the tendency to over-emphasise personality-based explanations for behaviours observed in others, while under-emphasising the role and power of situational influences on the same behaviour.
  • Availability bias: the tendency to over-estimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be.

How do cognitive biases affect the management of agile / virtual teams?

While you could argue that all these biases could have an impact on managing teams (virtual or otherwise), the last two are more likely to occur when a team works much of the time apart.

  1. Attribution error

According to attribution theory, people are inclined to find explanations (attributions) as to why other people behave the way they do. These can be internal factors – such as personality, skills or knowledge – and external factors or circumstances. There is a tendency to attribute our successes to our skills but our failures to external factors, whereas when we look at others, we place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain their behaviour, often because we don’t know enough about the external factors that may be influencing them. Hence both successes and failures will be attributed to personal factors.

Thinking about this, the more we know about each other’s situations, and indeed our skills and experience, the better we can form judgements about what is going on. Otherwise, there is a tendency to make ‘attribution errors’ – and when we work apart from each other much of the time, there are fewer opportunities to gather the information needed to form a sound judgement. If we make lots of errors in our judgement of others, this is likely to have a negative impact on building and sustaining trusting relationships.

It isn’t hard to imagine a manager who doesn’t know his team members very well interpreting their behaviour in terms of their skills and knowledge, as opposed to situational factors (such as home/domestic or health aspects) which may be having a big impact on their performance. Without the opportunity to understand the big picture, wrong judgements could be made about the person’s ability, commitment, willingness to work as part of the team etc.

  1. Availability bias

The human mind recalls frequently occurring events more easily than rare events, so relying on the information that is “available” in our memory will in general lead to good decision-making. However, the information is also determined by factors unrelated to frequency, such as vividness and salience. For instance, managers conducting performance evaluations will more easily recall vivid examples of a colleague’s behaviour (either positive or negative) than commonplace incidents, so vivid examples will be weighted more heavily in the evaluation.

In terms of those who work in more virtual teams, a person who is often in the office is likely to receive a more positive evaluation than a member who is out of the office most of the time, because the manager will be more aware of the achievements he/ she can observe directly. Therefore, it is important to think about the visibility of the work being undertaken remotely.


Can you prevent bias?

Unfortunately, the prevailing view is that you can’t do very much about the negative impact of biases. Even Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and the world’s leading authority on this subject, once stated:

I’ve been studying judgment for 45 years, and I’m no better than when I started. I make extreme predictions. I’m over-confident. I fall for every one of the biases.”

We can improve only our ability to identify and understand cognitive biases, in others and eventually in ourselves. Or as Richard Feynman, another Nobel laureate puts it:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest a timely intervention to limit the damage that biases and the ensuing bad judgments often cause.

So what can we do?

The ‘accurate diagnosis’ is clearly not easy! Awareness that decisions can be biased is obviously important, but it would seem almost impossible to correct biases (because they are hard wired into the brain). But here are a few ideas:

  • the help of others could be sought (people with different perspectives and experiences may find it easier to detect our biases)
  • be wary of the selection of the “other people” that you choose – their very choice may indicate a pre-disposition to go with established patterns of behaviour and will only seek to reinforce existing thinking. Seeking input from those least like you may be a good rule of thumb!
  • examine assumptions and seek evidence upon which to base decisions and judgements. Reference to facts, organisational information, reviews from other managers when it comes to performance for example, so that the decision or conclusion is not based on memory alone
  • for those that rely heavily on “gut feeling” or intuition to recognise they are probably more prone to availability bias
  • identifying what information could challenge one’s preconceptions and actively looking for evidence that they might be suspect. There is a tendency to proceed on the basis of whatever information/evidence exists and to overlook any gaps in the picture. If the manager looked back in a year’s time, what information might help him/her to make a good judgement, and is it possible to get more of that intelligence now?
  • seek inputs from those we are judging, which may explain their behaviour and reveal that there may be external factors at work, rather than their innate personality or skills being responsible for the observed behaviour.

And in the knowledge that you can’t remove biases from people, try to ensure that bias is removed from processes and design in preventative measures – for example using decision guides for making key decisions, or using if/then plans, so that the direction is prescribed and less susceptible to bias.

In our next blog we continue our exploration of the agile workforce, by looking at how Communication is impacted when we aren’t together with our colleagues and how the richness of different methods of communication can have a real impact on its effectiveness.