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Bias Revisited

Issue 137, November 30, 2023

If you have been following our newsletters, you know that we have a fascination about bias. In fact, from our observations about workplace dysfunction, leadership disconnect, market orientation dislocation, and digital transformation gone awry, conscious, or subconscious bias is usually at the root of the problem. It may sound simplistic, but what we don’t know we don’t know can shortstop the best of intentions and the most optimistic plans.

When we think of bias, most of us don’t see its practical application to the workplace. We typically think of biases as about personal beliefs, politics, parenting – anything other than a potentially subversive unconscious bias that can infect an organization. So, let’s take a deeper look at some of the common biases that can demoralize, disappoint, and derail. And these biases are often acerbated by the pressing need to make transformations to survive in a digital marketplace, while serving multi-generational stakeholders, each informed and influenced by a wide range of life stage realities.

As always, almost everything – positive, negative and everything in between — in organizations can be distilled to the human factor. We cite established biases and have coined a few of our own. Read on!

Resistance to Change

Change agents in an organization have a rough time of it.  They are so hellbent in believing they can see the future clearly and pushing for change to save the day, that their confidence bias can make them appear to be bulldozers not beacons. These change agents suffer from both cognitive and emotional bias. They are so in love with transformation and reinvention, they do not understand why others can’t see the world the same way they see it. This is also referred to as the illusion of control bias with the visionaries’ overestimation of their ability to influence outcomes. But here’s what can make it even worse; the rest of the team that doesn’t share or understand the vision can be self-limited by their own biases. For example, the team’s cognitive bias encourages them to avoid uncomfortable facts that contradict their own convictions. And their confirmation bias favors information that confirms the team’s previously existing beliefs. And then the status quo makes the team resistant to any change (Investopedia).

To successfully transform, evidence-based truths about the positive outcomes of change are essentials. This puts the case for transformation on a higher level than the innate enthusiasm (or impatience) of the changemakers. Empathy in describing the changes and outlining what the team may gain or lose is a pathway to opening the door of bias at any conscious or subconscious level. Communication (or lack of it) is what gets us all in trouble if we are not clear. Sensitivity to how the listener hears is also essential.

Yes, this is a lot of work.  But if you get it right out of the gate and continuously commit to maintaining mindfulness on what is necessary to communicate and how to communicate infused with empathy, you can avoid endless rounds of reconvincing and re-campaigning for change.

Me Versus You

Why is it that many leaders think that they understand their stakeholders so clearly?  How many times have you heard managers in meetings quote their children as prophets or marketing experts? With a focus group of one or a few voices, leaders make conclusions that guide their decision-making believing themselves to be well-informed. It’s true that the behaviors and outlooks of next gens can be aggregated into a general outlook but drawing conclusions from a limited number as a proxy for an entire generation (think clients, employees as well as customers) can be dangerous. This is referred to as halo effect bias or personal perception bias in the sense of drawing conclusions on initial impressions (Indeed). We cannot overemphasize the need for evidence-based information to guide an impartial and objective understanding of the attitudes, values, and lifestyles of key stakeholders.

I Am the World

One of the most egregious examples of personal management bias is when we encounter organizational leadership that believes it is inclusive and diverse. A great example of this is the retail industry, writ large. It is run principally by white, middle-aged men. Its customers are principally women of all ages and ethnicities. Retail leadership, under pressure from boards and investors, has an accountant mentality, abandoning visceral relationships with customers in favor of transactional data. This situation is a case of preferential bias, assuming that “father knows best,” which pretty much ended in the 1950s.

The lack of inclusivity can be referred to as myopic bias, with leaders believing that their customers are “just like me.” Think of your own customers and look around your team’s meeting table. Are the people you depend on representative and reflective of your customers or is it a collection of “mini-me’s” curated to ensure how you think and what you want to do is always confirmed by those who see the world as you do and think like you do (confirmation bias)?  Do you have an inclusive team with voices at the table with the confidence to express their opinions?

The Smartest Person in the Room

One of the most difficult challenges in any organization is navigating the bias of colleagues who think they are smarter than everyone else.  This is referred to as narcissism or ego bias. There’s a good chance they are smarter, but how they interact with others can tarnish the group dynamic and devalue their own intelligent contributions. This often manifests with the experience of the “smartest” person pushing back or saying no all the time. For more one that topic, check out our take on “personal power” and the related dynamics that play out for an organization.

Worse is “the rolling of the eyes syndrome.” Granted they may be right, but the ability to bring others along with them is compromised by their egos and sense of intellectual entitlement. Thinking you are the smartest is inherently inconsistent with being empathetic.

If someone has a brain that is a fast processor and is always waiting for others to catch up, it is a losing proposition for everyone because of the gaps among different thought processes. Jumping ahead, drawing conclusions without “hearing” what others might contribute, and waiting for others to catch up or add to the discussion can lead to disaster.

Patience is a virtue, and the ego biased individual is usually short on that behavior to effect positive, informed, and collaborative change. The nemesis of the smartest person in the room is the task-based, list-making organizer who tends to think vertically, not holistically. How to bridge this divide is difficult, however all parties need to understand that good decision-making with a diversity of perspectives will ensure buy-in – essential for any initiative to move forward smoothly.

Need to Control

There is a blinders mentality in the need to maintain control of an organization, group, department, or even a set of customers. The myopia is that if one tries to control change, a situation, organizational dynamics and the customer relationship, there is less perceived risk. Singlehandedly orchestrating a complex scenario confirms a sense of one’s own righteousness in a particular worldview.  A worldview that is so insular and personal, it may be aligned only to one’s own thinking and perception, not the rest of the organization or customers.

The need to maintain control strengthens even more personal bias turning a blind eye on the value of others and dismissing their roles and potential contributions. The motivation to control has a double edge; personal anxiety may be mitigated, and territory is clearly marked, but in very few instances in work and life can anything meaningful be accomplished. Like it or not, we need a village. We need others to buy in and we need to understand and respect the fact that not everyone thinks, operates, and makes decisions in the same ways. In context of change, transformation or simply small adaptations, personal control can backfire.

Above all, most people resist control that is imposed on them externally. That resistance bias puts the controller directly at loggerheads with the stakeholders to be controlled. Again, clear, compassionate communication is critical. The entry point is communicating what will be gained personally and professionally by any change.

That said, it’s important to look deeper at the reasons behind the need to control. Most individuals who close others out of a process or conversation tend to have a streak of insecurity (or hubris).  And insecure people can be the most dangerous, making decisions, controlling others, and imposing their wills all in the guise of personal strength that is actually a disguise for insecurity.  It takes compassion on behalf of everyone to navigate through the minefield of control.


What is an organization to do to keep the wheels on while it reinvents or simply refreshes itself? With so many ingrained biases influencing receptivity as well as decision-making, you could think it’s a hopeless situation. Well, it’s not hopeless, but it takes some mindful intervention to break down the bias issues and unlock the appropriate solutions.

It requires an individual, group and even an entire organization to “see” the types and sources of biases at play that may be holding back progress. “Seeing” is step one in managing bias and opens the possibilities of finding workarounds.

Seeing also adapting the process of establishing tactics and strategies to account for biases. It’s often annoying to have to slow down to accommodate other viewpoints, however the “power of the whole” can’t be underestimated in moving forward toward achievement and success and decreasing the potential for failure.

Get “The Truth about Transformation”

The Truth about Transformation Book Cover ImageThe 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail?  They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor.  We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.

Order your copy today and let us know what you think!

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