Beating Cognitive Bias

April 27, 2017

 

Team Role Awareness as a tool

for Cognitive Bias Mitigation

 

‘Nobody is perfect, but a team can be’.

 

Meredith Belbin

 

Biases are everywhere, and whilst not all of them are bad, we are responsible for the impact of our individual and collective biases and the behaviour that they fuel.

 

In nearly 30 years of team and leadership development, we have found enhanced awareness of the behavioural types that exist within a team to offer great cognitive bias mitigation.  

 

 

What’s Cognitive Bias?

 

It is the influence that unconscious, fast, and automatic shortcuts of the brain can have upon the quality of human decision-making, judgment and behaviour. 

 

Unchecked, it can lead to individual and collective errors, damaged relationships and wasted contributions.

 

Cognitive biases have evolved to help us make quick decisions based upon our perception of external factors across a lifetime of experiences that are unique to each person. 

 

Across our evolutionary history, these shortcuts and filters would have helped us to react more rapidly to predators and threats.  It’s the ‘fight or flight’ response / ‘amygdala moments’ in action. 

 

Having shortcuts based on evolved filters saves vital seconds in some scenarios, but mean we might have dangerous blind spots or simply ‘put our foot in it’ in others.

 

Two examples of cognitive bias at work in recent, high profile scenarios.

 

The GFC

A German study of the 2007 financial crisis (the MarketBeat Study 2010) concluded that expertise amongst stock analysts and traders made them resistant to external signals and warnings that that did not conform to their beliefs even when they had become obvious to many ‘non experts.’  Confirmation Bias – Knowledge Bias - Overconfidence Bias – Status Quo Bias

 

Loss of the NASA Mars Climate Orbiter

Unchecked assumptions across NASA regarding simple factors such as the use of metric and US units of measurement used in different systems on the craft resulted in its loss from low altitude approach to the Mars surface.  Availability Bias – Blind Spot Bias – Confirmation Bias – Overconfidence Bias

 

 

What’s Cognitive bias mitigation?

 

It is the attempt to prevent and / or reduce the negative effects of cognitive biases. 

 

With almost 30 years of working with team roles internationally, we have found that robust Belbin behavioural profiles can be a great help in mitigating the negative impacts of bias for a team.

 

We have witnessed how working backwards from the observed behaviours in a situation where bias comes into play, clearly helps to identify and manage that same cognitive bias in future scenarios.

 

 

Why try to identify and mitigate biases?

 

To enhance team performance:

 

Cognitive biases play a significant role in human interactions courtesy of the social systems within the brain. 

 

They provide the emotional fuel for team behaviours, therefore curbing the negative impacts where possible is useful for team performance, helping to avert unnecessary friction and minimize waste of time and human capital. 

 

Understanding how to better manage and adapt our behaviours when bias strikes can help to mitigate the impact of biases on actual team performance.

 

To better understand human behaviour within teams gives us practical tools and a common language to combat the adverse impacts of cognitive bias and ensure that the optimal cognitive capacity of each team member can be tapped.

 

To avoid dangerous blind spots in decision-making:

 

Whilst cognitive bias can be an aid to survival in some situations, it is a dangerous blind spot in others, especially where more rational thought and diverse inputs may be needed in a team. 

 

A bias makes us perceive and react to the world and those around us in a way that we would likely otherwise consider to be less than optimal at best, and at worst quite damaging.

 

Risks or opportunities that in hindsight may appear obvious can be missed when biases are driving our thinking and behaviour. 

 

Catching and managing biases in time helps teams to make better, timely and more rational decisions, as opposed to retrospectively dealing with the fallout of bad ones. 

 

This quote is attributed to a man who was well aware of the often fatal and immediate impacts of cognitive bias in a harsh military environment….

 

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”

 

General George S Patton

 

 

To avoid damaged relationships at work:

 

We can all behave at far less than our best when our sub-conscious biases spark emotive reactions in place of more rational ones.

 

In short, the emotional part of our brain will react in a similar fashion when challenged by a heated meeting at work, just as it would at the mouth of a cave in pre-historic antiquity when challenged by a predator  - that is quickly and emotionally.

 

For example, the creative ‘Plant’ in a team having their ideas challenged and pulled apart by a cynical “Monitor Evaluator’ may be unable to avoid having their ‘fight or flight’ reaction. 

 

When people understand one another’s reactions in this way, and use a neutral language to explore it, it may not be taken as personally.

 

Individuals and teams can not only make poor decisions when biases kick in, but also damage their relationships when emotional responses take the place of more rational ones.

 

See some examples of common biases that occur within teams at the end of this article. 

 

 

How can Team Role awareness mitigate cognitive bias in teams?

 

By understanding the impact of our behaviour:

 

Put simply, better understanding how to recognize the impacts of our own behaviour and that of others upon team performance when bias arises allows us to manage it. 

 

We are better placed to manage and contain our own behaviour and help others do likewise (at the very least develop tolerance for where it’s coming from) with such knowledge. 

 

Having a balance of action, social and thinking behaviours present within a team can help us to identify and manage many common biases that impact the team. 

 

Knowledge of how they manifest can give us the power to minimize the impacts by catching them before they damage our working relationships. 

 

 

Developing symbiotic relationships that compliment one another:

 

Understanding how biases manifest in team behaviours can also enable symbiotic working relationships to be developed to help counter biases in one another.

 

As Belbin put it, “nobody is perfect but a team can be”.

 

As an individual we are highly unlikely to be as immune to all of these biases as we’d like to be, but with good symbiotic working relationships within a team we can be far better placed to manage them as they impact us.  What catches us may not catch others in the team.

 

If however we have a lot of ‘like with like’ within a team, then the collective team’s risk of succumbing to certain types of bias can increase (for example a lot of action oriented ‘Shapers’ succumbing to action based biases, or harmony seeking ‘Teamworkers’ to social biases).

 

A person’s behavioural profile, and also team combination reports revealing the chemistry of the team, can help us to better understand the potential biases that a team may be most susceptible to

 

The unique preferences that a person has across the 9 clusters of Belbin Team Role behaviours will see them being susceptible to some cognitive biases, yet quite a helpful antidote for others if we know how to tap one another’s strengths.

 

An Example In Belbin Terms: A person with the Team Role of Monitor Evaluator can usefully identify and curb action oriented biases from more impulsive Resource Investigators and Shapers in planning situations.  The corollary of this is when those same Resource Investigators and Shapers may help the analytical Monitor Evaluator to break from a biased tendency towards ‘paralysis by analysis’ in other scenarios where speed is demanded over the removal of all risk.

 

When good working relationships are cultivated between people of diverse styles, they are better enabled to project their own cognitive strengths at the right time and help to offset the weaknesses of one another within the team. 

 

 

Having realistic expectations:

 

We need to be aware that simply knowing what our biases are will not necessarily protect us fully from them. 

 

Humans are emotional creatures, and good relationships, trust and respect within a team is needed help rise above the inevitable emotional reactivity that comes with real world relationships and pressure.  

 

Cognitive bias and the resulting behaviours within teams won’t go away, but they can be better understood and managed.

 

Recent research even points to those most prone to the “Overconfidence Bias” actually being overconfident when asked to rate their own ability to manage that bias themselves.  They thus also suffer from what’s known as “Blind Sport Bias”, the ability to see bias in others, but not their own.  

 

Those with the Team Role styles of both Shaper and Specialist who burst with confidence and expertise can often benefit from this simple insight.

 

The creation of psychological safety within teams also permits easier mutual correction of biases to work under pressure. 

 

If people feel that they can be open and authentic within the team, without fear or ridicule, mutual spotting and correction of biases as they arise is easier to maintain under pressure.

 

 

Use the understanding to help others at work:

 

‘Meerkat Moments’ can also help. 

 

In the wild, Meerkats (cute little members of the Mongoose family, highly communal creatures and great at teamwork), have lookouts to spot and warn their busy task focused groups of approaching potential threats. 

 

Teams can also benefit from the occasional Meerkat style lookout for team process, knowing the indicators for cognitive bias, and then how it may impact team decision-making, relationships and performance under pressure. 

 

Having “Meerkat Moments” is possible where openness and psychological safety exists and team members may respectfully and even humourously catch one another when a bias raises its head before it impacts team outcomes. 

 

In our experience, undertaking such an evidence-based Belbin approach to measuring behavioural clusters within a team can help us to understand and mitigate cognitive bias within teams.

 

 

To find out more about how we use the Belbin Model contact us Belbin@SabreHQ.com . 

 

 

MORE INFORMATION ON COGNTIVE BIASES:

 

Three categories of cognitive biases

 

Motivational / Social Biases:

Evaluating our own social rationale for the actions we take as well as the rationale for how others in the team may act.  Misinterpretations of what actually motivates the behaviour we see from others can cause communication problems, mistrust and damaged relationships.

 

Perception / Thinking Biases: 

Filters that allow us to perceive information under various circumstances that may be helpful in some scenarios, yet in others adversely effect how teams make their decisions by over or under thinking.

 

Behaviour / Action Biases:

Effect how we behave when tending towards the required actions and interactions within our environment based on our perceptions. 

 

 

21 common examples of cognitive biases that can impact teams

 

The unique preferences that a person has across the 9 clusters of Team Role behaviours will predispose them to being susceptible to some biases in certain situations, yet in others being the possible antidote.

 

Anchoring

Over-reliance upon the first piece of information or first set of observations.  Once on the table, all other options get compared to them regardless of merit.

 

Clustering

Seeing patterns or reading meaningful links into random events that are not actually meaningfully linked and thus making false assumptions from patterns that don’t exist. 

 

Knowledge

A filter that may block the ability of a clever team o see a problem from a general perspective other than those based in their deep knowledge and expertise.  The curse of knowledge. 

 

Availability

Overestimating of the value of the information that you have at hand because it is widely spoken of, known and / or advocated for.  “That course of action can’t be dangerous because we know someone else did it and it worked for them”.

 

Zero Risk

Failing to proceed or progress as required for fear of all risk in situations that cannot be risk free, or seeking to remove all minor risks instead of seeing or managing bigger risks.

 

Bandwagon Effect

People adopting an idea or a belief based largely on the number of others who hold that idea or belief irrespective of its merit.  Groupthink. 

 

Illusion of Control / Overconfidence

Overestimating / overconfident your own or a team’s experience, intellect and ability to control unfolding external events.  Experts more prone to this than newbies.

 

Selective Perception

Perceiving experiences and people based upon our expectations as opposed to how things actually unfold / they perform. 

 

The Ostrich Effect

Burying heads in the sand so as not to hear negative information / what you may not want to hear but may need to hear.

 

Blind Spot

Not seeing that you are being biased in your thinking and behaviour is a form of bias.  Yet we are still likely to be able to see the cognitive biases of others.

 

Sunk Costs

Fear of altering or aborting a dangerous or less than optimal course of action based upon having sunk too much time and effort into it.

 

Choice Supportive

Choosing an option because it has a positive feeling attached to it and not seeing the flaws.

 

Confirmation

Taking onboard only facts or insight that confirm a strongly held preconception.

 

Conservatism

Favouring only existing or established evidence or approaches over new information or approaches that have emerged. 

 

Information

Seeking more information when less information would allow better / faster decisions or a mass of information will impede action.

 

Outcome

Weighing the merit of a decision based only on the outcome, ignoring quality of ho the decision was made, even if the decision was flawed and the outcome was a lucky one.

 

Pro-innovation

Overvaluing the usefulness of an approach over any potential limitations based on it being championed as innovative or new.

 

Recency

Weighting the latest / newest information or insights more than older data. 

 

Salience

Focusing upon the most obvious or easily recognizable features of a challenge or problem and not considering perhaps more likely but less obvious factors.

 

Stereotyping

Expecting / assuming a person or group of people to behave or perform based upon stereotypes / generalisations without actual information, evidence or insight into how they will.

 

Survivorship

Assuming merit for surviving examples, strategies or people and making flawed decisions by ignoring aspects that have failed or were a high risk of failure under differing circumstances.

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