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Cognitive biases in the workplace

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Most people spend their days blissfully unaware of the cognitive biases that affect their everyday interactions.

Yet, learning to recognize those pesky biases can improve both our personal lives and our career outlooks.

With that in mind, let’s talk about:

  • What cognitive biases are,
  • Some of the main causes of cognitive biases, and
  • The most common cognitive biases along with tips for overcoming them.

What are cognitive biases?

In the 1970s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman coined the term cognitive bias to describe people’s flawed patterns of thinking when reaching decisions and making judgments. 

Simply put, cognitive biases happen when our brains try to simplify information processing

After all, human brains are naturally only capable of processing so much information. That’s why our minds use mental “shortcuts” called heuristics to expedite this process.

Yet, even though these shortcuts are generally useful and effective, they sometimes lead to cognitive biases and other types of systematic errors.

In addition to heuristics, cognitive biases can also be caused by our:

  • Emotions (and presumptions),
  • Limited ability to process information, and 
  • Age (and the accompanying decline of cognitive ability).

How do cognitive biases impact our workplace?

According to a Coqual study of 3,500 professionals, cognitive biases dramatically influence the work environment and company culture.

Employees who perceive bias in the workplace are:

  • Twice as likely to disengage from their work,
  • 3 times more likely to quit their jobs in the following year, and
  • 5 times more likely to badmouth their employer on social media.

On an individual level, cognitive biases:

  • Affect our decision-making skills,
  • Negatively impact our problem-solving capabilities,
  • Slow down our career prospects, 
  • Make us less likely to respond adequately in crises,
  • Damage our relationships with our coworkers, and
  • Increase anxiety.

How do cognitive biases affect our business communication?

In today’s business world, more than ever, effective communication is a must.

However, it is not always a given, due to:

As a result, we can develop cognitive biases that may distort the message:

  • During its encoding by the sender, or
  • During its decoding by the recipient of the message.

In both cases, the result is ineffective communication.

So, to avoid communication breakdown, it’s crucial to understand different types of cognitive biases.

Top 10 most common cognitive biases

There are over 170 types of cognitive biases. The following 10 are the most common ones you should look out for.

#1: Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias leads us to look for evidence that confirms what we already think or believe in.

Technology exacerbated this issue through personalized online algorithms, which create a digital filter bubble around each user.

Still, there are several ways to overcome this bias:

  1. Use reputable sources to inform yourself.
  2. Get out of your comfort zone and seek out different perspectives.
  3. Challenge your views by engaging in discussions with people you don’t typically agree with.

#2: Hindsight bias

Hindsight bias lets us convince ourselves after an event that we knew the outcome beforehand

This bias may lead to overconfidence in our abilities to predict future events, which can negatively influence our decision-making.  

To combat this kind of thinking:

  1. Keep track of your past decisions and predictions.
  2. Think of alternative outcomes.
  3. Review your predictions sporadically

#3: Self-serving bias

Self-serving bias represents our inclination to attribute positive outcomes to our own character and negative outcomes to external factors.  

This type of bias can be especially detrimental to employees’ accountability in the workplace. Not owning up to our mistakes can seriously damage our team’s productivity and trust among our teammates.

Luckily, there are ways to mitigate this bias:

  1. Become more self-aware and take note of your shortcomings. 
  2. Don’t be (too) hard on yourself, but do hold yourself accountable for your actions.
  3. Give your coworkers the benefit of the doubt you would want to receive.  

#4: Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is our propensity to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are offered.

This information, the so-called anchor, can define the flow of our judgment process — even during business negotiations. As such, anchoring is an inextricable part of effective persuasive communication

There are 3 strategies you might use to avoid falling victim to the anchoring bias:

  1. Be aware of the bias, especially when you’re preparing for negotiations. 
  2. Drop your own anchor, to prevent other parties from deciding on the flow of the conversation.
  3. Be patient and delay your decision to make sure you’re considering all options.  

#5: Availability bias

Availability bias is our tendency to believe that the information that readily comes to our mind is more important than those we don’t recall so quickly.

The most common consequence of this bias is that we may jump to conclusions — which may cause unnecessary anxiety.

Taming this bias requires a bit of effort, but it’s possible with our set of tips:

  1. When in doubt, consult with your collaborators — they’ll tell you if the conclusion you’ve reached makes sense.
  2. Take your time and weigh your options to avoid making hasty decisions.
  3. Filter the information that comes to you — it’s better to be overly critical and suspicious than to pay the price of becoming a “victim” of your mind. 

#6: The Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when, due to a lack of self-awareness, people overestimate their knowledge or competence in a certain skill or field. 

In other words, their perception of their own skills doesn’t match reality. Naturally, that makes them notoriously difficult to communicate and work with.

To avoid succumbing to this bias, follow these tips:

  1. Never stop questioning your knowledge to avoid becoming a victim of overconfidence. 
  2. Try to prove yourself wrong, even when you’re certain you’re right — especially then.
  3. Ask your colleagues for opinions to make sure you don’t miss any blind spots. 

#7: In-group bias

In-group bias is our tendency to favor people from our own group over others. In other words, we’re more likely to believe someone from our group than outsiders. 

This bias is especially dangerous during the hiring process because it might make recruiters less objective.

To overcome this bias, remember to:

  1. Consider what makes someone a part of your group to become aware of the factors that make you favor one person over another.
  2. Talk to others about in-group bias to figure out whether some groups are favored over others.
  3. Take an implicit association test to discover your hidden biases.

#8: The halo effect 

The halo effect occurs when we automatically make positive assumptions about a person based on their positive characteristics. In a way, we’re attaching “a halo” to them, which prevents us from seeing their negative attributes.

This bias is the opposite of the horn effect, which makes us assume the worst about a person once we’ve zeroed in on their negative traits. In both cases, our first impression of the person influences all of our subsequent judgments of them.

One example of the halo effect in action would be when people hire candidates because they went to a good school without considering their other attributes. 

You can learn to look past this halo by:

  1. Becoming aware of this bias — and you’re halfway there just by reading this!
  2. Objectively considering all the facts before relying on a person.
  3. Seeking the opinions of people who aren’t influenced by the new candidate’s halo. All in all, open communication is always key.

#9: Status quo bias

Status quo bias is defined as our preference for maintaining our current situation. In other words, it’s about having difficulties processing and accepting changes.

Overcoming this bias is crucial if you want to achieve any kind of personal or professional success. The following tips should help you defeat the status quo bias:

  1. Learn to recognize status quo bias — pay attention to your reactions when someone proposes any kind of change in the workplace and go from there.
  2. Make a list of pros and cons to determine whether your reservations are justified. 
  3. Change your perspective by considering what you stand to lose if you don’t accept the proposed change.

#10: Curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when a person assumes everyone knows as much as they do on a certain topic

Professionals tend to be fully immersed in their field of expertise to the point of forgetting what not knowing about a certain subject was like. As a result, they can assume everyone has access to the same knowledge, leading to misunderstandings and frustration.

To avoid miscommunication, try putting the following tips into practice:

  1. Don’t use industry jargon, especially when talking to coworkers who may not have the same expertise you do. 
  2. Don’t assume anything about the people you’re talking to — if you’re not sure what their level of knowledge on a specific topic is, ask them.
  3. Be patient when explaining new concepts to coworkers — and don’t be afraid to overcommunicate.

Further reading

This is just a summary of an article previously published on the Pumble blog.

To learn more about cognitive biases, we recommend reading the full article: