Critical Thinking - Leaders, Know Thy Biases

Critical Thinking – Leaders, Know Thy Biases

A few years back, I was interviewing a candidate for a senior technical position. During our interaction, all his responses were tied to how things were done in the organization he was currently working with. He was so immersed in the context of his current organization that he even missed understanding the core of question being asked. Upon careful analysis, I found that he was only listening to those parts of question where he had some previous experience. He was filtering his response through what worked for him the past and what did not. He was, quite clearly, a victim of cognitive bias.

The term ‘cognitive bias’ was coined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972 which quite simply means “our tendency to filter information, process facts and arrive at judgments based on our past experiences, likes/dislikes and automatic influences.”

Applying certain practices just because everyone else is adopting those, finding only that information which supports our preconceptions, failing to reset our expectations based on changed situation and blindly believing in what majority of people believe are all classic examples of how cognitive bias works at workplace.

If these biases are such a strong force, how do we counter these biased tendencies? Critical thinking is an antidote to cognitive biases. When we think critically, we recognize our own assumptions, evaluate arguments and draw conclusions. (refer the RED Model)

If you are a leader or an aspiring one, here are simple ways to deal with cognitive biases in your team/organization.

Ask questions, often. When considering a decision, ask questions that elicit understanding and clarify details. When you ask questions, you extend an opportunity to others to really express them. You are extending an opportunity to yourself to understand their thinking more closely.

Encourage a culture where asking questions is valued. Let people not fear from asking questions. Show them the value of asking right questions before a decision is taken. It is always more productive then asking questions after a decision is taken.

Look for the contrary. It helps playing a devil’s advocate and taking a contrarian view of things. It not only challenges others to think harder but also helps you in really understanding if they are just defending their own biases.

Embrace Diversity. This starts with hiring decisions. Don’t hire people whose beliefs are compliant with yours. You will tap into diverse ideas and viewpoints only when you have people with diverse thinking patterns on your team.

Enlist. Listen. Silent. As a leader, you enlist people onto your vision when you listenand for that you need to be silent. No wonder that these three words are made from same letters. It is only when you listen intentionally that you can consider arguments and alternative viewpoints

Attend to data and evidences. When you ask your people to bring data, evidences and trends, it does not mean lack of trust. It only means that you are intentional about serving them better by taking the right decisions.

Communicate clearly. Clear and accurate communication is a leader’s tool #1. If you want your team to communicate clearly, then you need to communicate with precision and clarity.


Over to you: Have you experienced cognitive bias in your team or organization. What strategies have worked for you when dealing with such biases. Looking forward to your insights through comments.

Pearson TalentLens develops and delivers scientific assessments for employee selection, development, retention and succession planning. Powered by eight decades of science, TalentLens offerings are scientifically proven and coupled with a powerful consulting expertise to enhance talent management decisions for all levels of employment – entry, middle and top. Its clients include half of the Fortune 500, expanding small businesses, and all organizations that make identifying talent and unlocking employee potential a top priority.

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