Humans are not immune to bias. We may think that we are rational beings, exercising complete freedom of choice, but we “tend to overstate our ability to make rational decisions and underestimate the impact of unconscious bias” as Juliet Bourke points out in her chapter on biases and behaviours in Which Two Heads Are Better Than One?

Sure, it can be argued that biases can aid decision-making. Essentially, they are “mental rules of thumb” and make our lives easier. Without them we would find even the smallest tasks near-impossible. But what about biases on executive teams and on our boards – where situations are complex, the stakes are high and there is potential for breakthrough ideas.

Biases can nullify diverse thinking and collective bias allows groupthink to thrive.

We need only look at recent history for examples where biases have led to a number of high profile collapses. While Enron’s board was diverse on the surface, the group was blind to the risks associated with a number of conflicts of interest. And for former “flying bank” SwissAir, its board believed the company was so good that they were invulnerable. Poor decisions and gross mismanagement led to the airline eventually becoming bankrupt.

Juliet Bourke argues that diversity of thinking by actively identifying and mitigating biases can improve the likelihood of making good decisions in situations of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

The list of possible biases is almost endless. In her book, Bourke tackles three key categories of bias, defines them and provides much-needed practical strategies to counteract them with the “time-poor and cognitively-stretched leader” in mind.

  1. Social bias

The social bias category relates to the unconscious decisions people make to invest time, effort and money in people or ideas that are similar to themselves. As a consequence, this means that they underinvest in those who are different. It is a direct challenger to diversity. It influences our connectivity and in so doing, actively limits our exposure to diverse groups of people and the ability to form broad perspectives.

It also leads to a “false consensus effect” where people believe the view that they hold is one shared by others and anything different is uncommon.

To counteract this bias takes “deliberate and consistent effort” and requires keeping an open mind. Bourke suggests:

  • actively look for interactions where you can broaden your network by seeking people with different ideas;
  • design opportunities where you actively involve with people different to yourself at moments of ‘significance’ or of high consequence – where decisions need to be made;
    • think about introducing a third person in this interaction, so one does not dominate;
    • develop communication protocols where you are prompted to focus on another perspective; and
  • focus on strategies that encourage mindfulness, transparency and accountability at the moment of interaction.
  1. Information bias

“Information biases influence the way in which people process any information they use to make a decision. When paired with social biases, information biases are amplified,” says Bourke. Focusing only on one’s preferred view can impede breakthrough ideas and rational decision-making.

These biases are very complex and can occur when evaluating information, when searching for information or through the creation of a “hypothesis”. 

If diversity of thinking is desired, considerable effort should be made to concentrate on these diverse perspectives and the time you, or your leadership team give to understanding and considering its merits. Strategies include:

  • generate multiple hypotheses to avoid focusing on one possible solution or point of view;
  • be honest with yourself about your own level of knowledge and the quality of the information you are evaluating. This requires self-reflection and calibration;
  • eliminate confirmation bias by asking yourself how you and your team have arrived at the decision – not just the outcome; and
  • understand that your interactions with information do not occur in an “emotional vacuum”, but in the context of environmental and individual pressures.
  1. Capacity bias

Capacity bias targets people’s ability to manage biases in the face of “finite cognitive resources and high demand.” Essentially, it is about being aware of biases that occur inside and outside the workplace and actively counteracting these with strategies grounded in diversity.

Boards and executives should be particularly mindful of this, as they are required to assess complex information and are required to make decisions of significant consequence. “Efficiency” is usually front of mind, so attention to diversity suffers.

Bourke suggests a combination of the following to address capacity bias and cognitive depletion (or decision fatigue) associated with high-level decision making:

  • schedule difficult decisions for the beginning of the day and limit trivial decision-making;
  • emphasise accountability of decisions and relevant processes to ensure that biases are considered and that people stay on task;
  • combat fatigue and cognitive depletion by ensuring that people receive regular amounts of glucose during the day; and
  • practice self-control and discipline. Practice decision-making to build mental energy and directly combat the effects of cognitive depletion.

Find out more about Juliet Bourke’s Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? on the AICD Bookstore .