The human brain is a wonderful thing. The most powerful supercomputer on earth, and every one of us has the latest model sitting right between our ears. It’s what enables us to do uniquely human things. Things like planning for the future, inventing and innovating, and imagining the world from other people’s points of view. All critical skills for aspiring leaders, and all delivered thanks to generations of refinement to the structure and psychology of the human brain.
In terms of evolutionary history, modern life is but a blink of an eye. Our cognitive architecture evolved to cope with a world very different from our own. A world driven by survival and the need to pass on our genes. A world in which the most powerful supercomputer is faced by a barrage of information from all sorts of stimuli competing for limited attention. And in order to cope with this overstimulation – this information overload – the supercomputer has developed shortcuts.
These shortcuts or rules of thumb –what psychologists call heuristics – are what enable us to deal with all the information that assails our senses. They allow us make decisions under pressure that will lead us to approach or avoid situations and objects. Inhuman terms, we can think about these behaviours as pleasure-seeking or pain-avoiding. To survive, we need to know whether we should attack prey that we might want to eat, run away from predators that might have the same designs on us, or mate with one of our species to attempt to pass on our genes directly.
In the savannah, our ancestors were faced with many, literally life-or-death decisions every day, and evolutionary psychologists believe we developed these shortcuts to avoid endlessly processing the same complex situations in detail. That would be expensive,time-consuming, and potentially fatal. The shortcuts are low intensity, low energy, and run by the automatic, so-called System 1, part of the brain. The trouble is, these shortcuts – which it can help to think of as natural biases – can also lead us to make reliable and predictable mistakes. Mistakes that today are played out at work.
Cognitive biases in the workplace
Leaders and aspiring leaders need to be aware that the two main functions or modes of thinking are
pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance. Leadership is an inside job, and to succeed, leaders need an awareness of their own fundamental drives and modes of thinking. Of the shortcuts we use to judge whether to approach or avoid someone or something. And of how – by the application of a little pause, reflection, and self-awareness – we can overcome these shortcuts and make better decisions.
Neuroscience has proved beyond doubt that the adult brain is not rigid, but rather plastic. We can unlearn unhelpful and unproductive behaviours and rewire ourselves for success. Age and experience don’t make us fixed and stuck in our ways. We just need the self-awareness and resolve to change, and our brains will follow.
So, let’s consider three of the brain’s most common shortcuts in the context of leadership and what we can do to overcome the bad decisions they can lead us to make.
1. Fight, flight, or freeze. With birds, lizards, fish, and mammals, we share an ancient self-preservation mechanism called the limbic system. This part of the brain is what helps us – quick as a flash, and without conscious reflection – assess a situation or other creatures and direct our energies in one of three ways. We can stand our ground and fight (we might beat off a rival and win food or a mate). We can run away and hope we don’t get caught, avoiding conflict or injury. Or we can stand stock still in the hope that we somehow become invisible. Remember David Attenborough’s baby iguanas and their snaky enemies on Planet EarthII? Classic flight vs fight behaviour.
We may have moved off the savannah and into the office and boardroom, but these behaviours are driven by the very same brain system in the office. I often see fight, flight, or freeze behaviour in organisations under pressure and stress, particularly at periods of organisational change or transition. Leaders closing their doors, not showing up to meetings, failing to reply to emails: these are all flight or avoidance behaviours. Managers raising their voices or colleagues losing their tempers with peers: these are fight behaviours. The inability to make decisions or paralysis by over-analysis: freeze.
Suggested action: at times of change, leaders should make themselves visible, not runaway, hide, or confront their teams. Communicate even when all you’re saying is, “There’s no news, but I promised to keep you updated.” Make yourself available and answer as honestly and candidly as you can, making colleagues feel valued and respected, even if and when the news is not good.
2. Selective attention. We pay attention to what we know. When we have children, everywhere there are babies. When we’ve bought a car, we notice only that make of car on the roads. If we’re suffering from hay fever,everyone is sneezing. Like makes like appear to be more common and a better representation of reality. This cognitive bias is also called the “availability heuristic”. If something is mentally available to you, you think it’s much more common than it is.
In part, this bias is a mechanism to protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed. But it also has important implications for leaders, especially those dealing with people or driving innovation and new product development within an organisation. Selective attention keeps us in our comfort zone. It stops us looking to the edges for radically new inspiration. It means we only notice what’s relevant to our narrow world. But our world is not THE world. If we reflect and understand those flashes of inspiration when we’re suddenly become aware of things – of unexpected solutions to thorny problems – we realise how we can use novelty to our advantage. And avoid the trap of falling into the same old, same old.
Suggested action: metaphorically put yourself into someone else’s shoes – your boss’,your competitor’s, your customer’s, your manager’s. Notice what seems to be important now. How does the altered perspective change and unblock your thinking? Can you get closer to a compromise or resolution? When you’re leading an innovation project, take an excursion. Get out of the office. Stop trying to solve the problem. Take timeout. Concentrate on something else entirely. Breakout of the confines of the meeting room. Getting out and noticing things from new perspectives is a fantastic exercise that makes creativity flow.
3. Confirmation bias. When we’re looking to address an issue,too often we confirm to ourselves that the things we see or experience are exactly what we expected. In fact, what the brain does is seek out those elements to match up with our opinion of how to resolve a challenge – what are known as my-side arguments. They come to mind more easily, they make us feel comfortable, and they convince us that the path we’d imagined was the right one all along. The problem is, confirmation bias doesn’t admit others’ perspectives or points of view, and it makes us behave in altogether too predictable ways. For those we lead, this can be demotivating and even demoralising.
Suggested action: surprise yourself by seeking out the polar opposite of what you expect to look for. Where you expect to experience conflict, seek harmony.Where you expect to see incompetence, seek genius or – at the very least –competence. Whenever you can, be genuinely curious and open-minded, even (or perhaps particularly) when you’re already certain you know the right things todo.
Our brave new world
Cognitive biases and shortcuts can be incredibly helpful. We don’t live on the savannah as we did for the vast majority of our evolutionary development, and our brains find it challenging to adapt to the new realities of today’s corporate environment. In this new realm,cognitive shortcuts allow and enable us to get on with our jobs, with managing and leading and developing our organisations in new and innovative ways. They can certainly help us filter out the wall of noise from digital and social media.
By the way, if you think these biases sound familiar – you’ve seen them in others, but not yourself – you could well be suffering from another, lesser-known bias yourself: bias blind spot bias. Bias blind spot bias – try saying that 3 times quickly in a row – is the bias that enables you to recognise the impact for biases in others’ judgment, but failure to recognise it in yourself.
If you can put bias blind spot bias aside, you’ll recognise that cognitive biases can lead us to make entirely predictable and not particularly helpful mistakes. Be sure as you’re leading your organisation, your team, and yourself that you make the time to reflect on why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made. And if you find – as so often – that you’ve been led astray by an otherwise helpful rule of thumb, stop. Think again and cast aside the power of the shortcut. You might just surprise yourself and your team and make a better decision.