In part one of this article we explored what a cognitive bias is and how they can wreak havoc on our thinking and living. In part two we’ll look at how cognitive biases infect groups and I’ll give you a four-step process to reduce the influence of biases.
What Do You See?
Take a look at the picture on the right? What’s going on? When I show audiences this picture, people seem sure that they know exactly what is going on. The only trouble is this: there are always significant disagreements about the story behind the picture. Some people believe it’s clear that the man is having a secret romantic moment with the woman on the right, while his wife (leaning on his shoulder) is oblivious to it. Others believe the woman nearest the man is his sister. The woman to the right is his girlfriend.
And that’s not where it ends. I’ve heard six or seven interpretations of the picture. All the interpretations quite different. All the interpreters quite certain they are right. How is this possible?
We make meaning; our biases, if we’re not paying attention, shape the meaning we make.
Seeing Together: A Worthy Chore
Everyday we make meaning out of experiences. The crazy thing though is that people regularly make different meanings out of the same experience (like the picture above). Just because we’re at the same party, meeting, or event, doesn’t mean we interpret that experience the same way. Our unique perspectives and cognitive biases influence what we see and the meaning we make. This is one reason why people can interpret the same situation so differently.
Have you ever walked out of a meeting (work or otherwise) and thought, “that went really well.” Only to find out later that no one else shared your opinion. Some thought the meeting was a bore. Others believed the meeting made current circumstances worse. And two people were offended and now want apologies for words uttered. You think, “are you kidding me, was I in a different meeting?” The answer to that, based on cognitive biases, is a big fat yes. When you think about it, it’s amazing that we can create any shared meaning at all. As soon people start talking (heck, before people start talking), each person’s biases and opinions flood their thoughts and words. It’s frustrating and often painstaking to find a shared meaning that allows us to move forward. This may be one reason we cleverly AVOID the hard work of creating alignment.
Avoiding Can Lead To Disaster
My new friend and author, Michele Wucker, has written an insightful book about how groups of people often ignore avoidable dangers. She calls these avoidable-dangers-waiting-to-happen, Gray Rhinos. A gray rhino is avoidable because we have prior knowledge of the danger and perhaps even the potential disaster that looms. But we ignore the warning signs until it’s too late. In the book, Michele recounts story after story of real-world disasters that were the result of this avoidance. And she recounts how cognitive biases, group think (a collective bias), misalignments, and our penchant for avoiding conflict, sets up the perfect storm that leads to disaster.
I asked her how the response to the book has been. Here’s what she said:
It’s been interesting seeing the reactions to the book as people relate gray rhinos to personal, work and even policy challenges. So many readers tell me, “Yes! What you’re saying is so important, and I am using these concepts in my life and business already.” But then there are the doubters who say that we are dealing well with the obvious, because it’s obvious, so we don’t need to worry; ironically, they are the ones who most need to be on the lookout for gray rhinos and could benefit from the concept. Their cognitive biases are holding them hostage.
Read that last sentence again.
Cognitive biases not only hold groups hostage, but they also significantly diminish collective ingenuity. It’s hard to find powerful insights and act together on those insights with available resources when our shared view is riddled with bias. It’s also difficult to make magic together when we have no shared view and we are lost in disagreement and debate. What can we do to reduce personal and collective bias and move important work forward? Here’s a four step process that can help.
Number One: When you enter conversations, be epistemically humble
Being epistemically humble is a fancy way of saying, “don’t be a know-it-all.”
The first way to reduce the power of bias is to be certain of only one thing: when it comes to your view of a situation, you are likely wrong (at least in part). When I interpret a situation or a person’s actions, it’s easy to begin with the view that my interpretation is “mostly right.” The trouble is that it’s not true. I’m not mostly right about anything. Further, when I lead with the idea that I’m right, other people must then work to unseat me from my view. I’m entrenched in my rightness. And if they are also entrenched in their rightness, finding shared meaning is tough. If, however, we both lead with the assumption that we are wrong (at least in part), due to our biases, we are more open to consider other possibilities–including each other’s.
Individuals in groups should approach conservations with this kind of personal humility. When you enter a conversation, consciously remember that your biases are part of your interpretation scheme. For example, when you get riled about a comment, assume your bias is, at least in part, what triggered you. Don’t just assume other people are trying to ruin your day (with their comments). Of course, that is possible. But it’s far more likely your emotional activation is partly due to your own bias toward the situation or the person. Factor that in and look for ways to tell a different story. That leads to number two.
Number Two: Challenge your personal story with alternatives
If you find yourself stuck in a bias or locked in unproductive conversations with team members, go back and examine the story you’re telling yourself. Challenge your view. Try to alter that story by asking these questions:
What else could the person mean? Why else might they be acting and talking the way they are? What else could be going on here? What bias of mine could be influencing me? What bias could be influencing the other person? How can I gracefully challenge their bias as well as my own?
The questions above enable us to think about our thinking and the stories we believe. It’s easy to get locked into a story and its “rightness.” We have to be willing to challenge our view in order to consider alternative views.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve created a story in my mind, about another person, only to find out that I was wrong. And not just a little wrong. But completely wrong. I have so often misinterpreted words, tones of voice, facial expressions and more. Remember, we are meaning-makers. We can’t help but make meaning. And once we make meaning, it’s not so easy to change it. This is where the questions (above) can open you to other options and possibilities.
Number Three: Require opposing views
Notice the word, require. Don’t simply “tolerate” or “expect” opposing views, but “require” them.
One of the best ways to break the grip of a bias (personal or collective) is to seriously explore opposing views. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with opposing views, but rather you are willing to genuinely explore them. Here are 5 ways to explore opposing views:
• Seek to understand rather than debate
• Ask genuine questions that lead you to appreciate the different view (you don’t have to agree with it to appreciate it)
• Practice empathy toward the person with the opposing view (put yourself in his/her shoes)
• Ask the other person to explain what she disagrees with about your view (again really listen–this is not about agreement or argument, but exploration)
• Look, intentionally look, for ways you could integrate some opposing views into your view so that you create a shared view. This leads to number four.
Number Four: Reduce bias by integrating differing views
Integrating ideas enables us to take the better parts of everyone’s ideas and create a shared story. I call this integration of ideas, ideaweaving. You can read about it here.
Think “Reduce” Not “Eliminate”
It’s unlikely that we will eliminate our cognitive biases. Reducing the influence of a bias should be our goal. The good news: this is possible. The more we think about our thinking and let other people think with us, the more we can reduce the grip of our pesky biases. It’s worth the effort. Shared meaning leads to shared action. And that leads to the alchemy we need as we execute our mission (whatever that mission may be).