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The Art of Balance

In Efficiency, Happiness - 3 years ago - 6 min

The Art of Balance

Bias in your decision-making could be holding back your company’s growth. Here’s how to overcome it.

The first step to solving a problem is recognising there is one. But when the problem is bias – something that’s rooted in your subconscious, affecting every decision you make – the chances of solving it suddenly become a lot harder.

Unconscious and confirmation bias are serious issues. When you’re making business decisions based on preconceived ideas or the information that supports them, then you’re leaving yourself open to errors. According to Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji, these biases affect you constantly, whether you’re making a decision about a new hire or a venture deal.

“The flawed judgments arising from these biases are ethically problematic and undermine managers’ fundamental work – to recruit and retain superior talent, boost individual and team performance, and collaborate effectively with partners,” says Mahzarin.

Some businesses are tackling the problem head on. Google has put more than half of its employees through workshops to help them understand and stop unconscious bias.

But not every company has the funds and resources of Google. And if the problem’s your brain and the shortcuts it takes to process the 11 million pieces of information it’s faced with at any given moment, you might be left asking: what can I do about bias in decision-making?

How to find objectivity

Don’t just trust statistics. It’s not that they lie – it’s more that your brain will often interpret them in a biased way. A 2013 study from Yale Law School found that confirmation bias affects the way people view statistics. It shows that people tend to use statistics to support existing beliefs, regardless of whether that data supports their view.

So what can you do to stop your decisions being tainted – whether it’s by unconscious or confirmation bias?

American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett actively seeks people with opinions that contradict his own. In one case, Buffett invited one of his critics – hedge fund trader Doug Kass – to an annual meeting of his company, Berkshire Hathaway.

If you take Buffett’s lead and consciously recognise bias is part of human nature and often can’t be helped, you can start to find better ways to counter this flawed way of thinking.

Peter Willson, MD of hydraulics distributor Hopespare, stresses the importance of asking: ‘So what?’, as the boss of an engineering firm he brings in his accountant – who isn’t a trained engineer – to keep their decision-making on track and objective.

“She continually pushes us to make the business case, not just the engineering case, for a proposed course of action” says Peter.

It makes us think hard – and think differently – about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether it’s right for the business. This helps us understand whether or not we should be doing it in the first place.

Give yourself the space to make the right decisions

Bias can often creep in when decisions are made in the moment and you don’t have enough time and space to think objectively about things.

Juliana Bersani, co-founder and COO of consultancy Outcomes Based Healthcare, found that objectivity comes when the company’s leadership team takes the time to break away and escape the day-to-day running of the organisation.

“We discuss everything, from strategy and funding to organising the next office social,” Juliana says. “Getting away allows us to focus on what we need to do to make the company grow.”

“You need that higher vantage point on the business” agrees Imran Khan, CEO of charity organisation The British Science Association. “You need space to look at the company in the round and analyse everything you’re doing. If you’re not taking time out and you’re not being analytical, then you’re wasting that vantage point,” he says.

Imran says it’s also crucial to help everyone in the organisation make good decisions. The more people that have the autonomy and feel trusted to make decisions, the easier it is for him to step back and have that objective view.

“The only decisions you should be making as a leader are the ones that are really hard and that no one else can” he says. “One of the tools I use to help people make better decisions is coaching. If people come to you for a decision, it’s more than likely they can make it themselves. So I coach them to help them unlock that decision. If you – as a leader – are having to make easy decisions all the time, then you’re doing something wrong.”

Next steps

Bias is inevitable in every decision you make. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fight back. Try these three simple techniques to counter the effect of bias.

1. Actively seek out ways to challenge what you see and think. Embrace diversity and listen to the people that challenge your view. Find someone who can play devil’s advocate during any major decision-making process.

2. Don’t rush into decisions or judgements. Give yourself the time and space to see the big picture. Look back at your decision-making history and identify the moments you’ve rushed into something. Ask yourself, what would you have done differently if you’d taken a step back and analysed the situation differently? And be prepared to ask for more time to make the big decisions.

3. Temper gut-feelings with reliable, objective information. Don’t dismiss the data because it contradicts your gut feeling. Find reliable information that gives you the whole story. Intuition needs to be balanced with data-led reasoning.

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