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Biased decisions can damage your results

01 Jun, 2020 Annual communication plans, Communication campaigns, PR planning, strategy, budgeting

Bias may seem a vague concept for business, but people’s biases cause massive errors in business decisions, including communication decisions. Therefore we need to be aware of the most common biases and how to counter them in planning and preparing for major activities. In this way, you will be able to mostly avoid biased decisions that damage your results.

Experts believe around 75% of major decision-making in business goes wrong due to unperceived biases. Similar problem rates occur in communication projects. For instance, decisions to launch new products often stem from action-oriented biases: “three out of four launches fail to meet revenue expectations and many result in significant losses“. Likewise with major issues: people may feel impelled to act because they feel they need to be seen to do something, whereas a non-response may be a better way forward.

What are biases?

We intuitively believe we understand biases. Just look at all those biased decisions of referees and umpires in sports – as well as all those biased politicians! Biases are also present in many aspects of important business decision-making. Therefore, we need to consciously analyze for biased decisions before they damage business results.

A bias is a person’s strong inclination of the mind or a preconceived opinion about something or someone that can shape their decisions. Biases cause people to behave in a particular way, influenced by psychological, social, or physiological factors. Biases are often subconscious and illogical.

Everyone has biases. We see them in other people all around us – more than 50 biases have been identified – and yet we tend to be blind to our own biases (this is a form of bias in itself – overconfidence).

Why do communicators need to understand biases?

Managerial level

If you are a communication manager – either internal or as a consultancy account manager – an understanding of biases helps you to be more aware of the possible flaws in your own decision-making process, and to use this better understanding to produce better decisions by the decision-making groups you deal with.

If you attend executive committee meetings and strategic planning sessions in your role as a manager, you can use your knowledge of biases to better understand decision-making at the top levels in your organization, including the politics involved. This enables you to help shape the handling of biases at the top levels – for better outcomes. You can also contribute knowledgeably to decision-making discussions about forming strategy. This will help your standing with executives because it reveals your (probably unexpected) strategic depth as a communicator. It also helps you respond knowledgeably to business proposals from consultants, in which you can detect biases in their assumptions.

Team members

If you are a team member, you will better understand the biases of the people in your team, including your boss, and you will be able to influence decision-making for the better in your area by referring to the guidance in this article.

At what point in decision-making do you check for bias?

The best point to minimize bias during the decision process for a business proposal is when you decide what information needs collecting. This will help you to minimize biased decisions that could damage results. Although bias can be deliberate, it is usually found when people just try to avoid information overload, and make quick, inadequate judgments on what information is needed. To counter this tendency, ensure the process is systematic and the information is high quality.

Otherwise you may rely on your previous experience to guide your search. This earlier experience may bias your judgment and may lead you in the wrong direction.

If others know the answer you want in your position as their leader, this contaminates the whole process. It can mean people persist with a bad idea because they know their leader supports it. This is a classic case of biased decisions potentially damaging business results.

These sources may be biased

If you notice the following, the source may be biased, and biased decisions damage results

  • One of the decision-makers could be trying to protect their ‘turf’ – the organizational area under their control or authority.
  • Heavily opinionated or one-sided
  • Relies on unsupported or unsubstantiated claims
  • Presents highly selected facts that lean to a certain outcome
  • Pretends to present facts, but offers only opinion
  • Uses extreme or inappropriate language
  • Tries to persuade you to think a certain way with no regard for factual evidence
  • The source of the information in question is unidentifiable, or the person making a claim lacks expertise on the subject
  • Is entertainment-based or a form of parody or satire
  • Tries to sell you something in disguise.

Find the source to resolve its authenticity

Find the source of the information you are confronted with – either verbal or written. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who owns/produces the source? (For instance, many of the most prominent anti-vaxxers sell books, products and webinars in response to COVID, from which they profit.)
  • Who advertises in the source? Are the advertisements appropriate for the source?
  • Is there a political slant in the content – written or verbal?
  • Does the content contain all the facts or at least present both sides of an argument fairly?
  • What type of language is being used? Does the author or speaker use strong language or hyperbole?
  • Do they back up their argument with factual evidence? Can you see where they got their evidence through links or citations for written material, and through attributions for verbal content?

To find the answer to these questions, you need to read the text or listen carefully, and you may have to do some background/fact-checking research to help determine if the source is reliable or biased.

Debiasing is difficult

Knowing we have certain biases isn’t enough. Many people recognize that biases have a massive impact on decision making, but don’t act to minimize the impact. Leaders know that any procedure they put in place to minimize bias is going to allow their judgment to be questioned during the normal process of decision making. And whether they’re fully aware of it or not, they don’t really want their decisions and choices questioned. And so they are prepared to proceed knowing they run the risk caused when biased decisions potentially damage your business results.

The two most common business biases

In big companies, biased decision making can cost billions of dollars, and sometimes causes the business to collapse. In communication projects, biased decisions resulting in poor outcomes can hit the bottom line, undermine the reputation of you and your organization, possibly lead to chunks taken from your future budgets, and perhaps cost your job. The two most common biases in major decisions are the confirmation bias and the overconfidence bias.

Confirmation bias

As discussed below, confirmation bias is our unconscious tendency to attach more weight than we should to information that is consistent with our beliefs, hypotheses, and recent experiences – and to discount information that contradicts them. Biased decisions reached in this way can cause severe damage to business results.

Overconfidence bias

The overconfidence bias often makes people misjudge their own abilities as well as the competencies of the business. It leads them to take risks they shouldn’t take, in the mistaken belief they will be able to control outcomes. Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says overconfidence is the bias he’d eliminate first if he had a magic wand: “It’s ubiquitous, particularly among men, the wealthy, and even experts.” Overconfidence is not a universal phenomenon — it depends on factors including culture and personality — but the chances are good that you’re more confident about each step of the decision-making process than you ought to be.

This conclusion is backed up by further research, which basically confirms “a little learning is a dangerous thing” – a little knowledge and experience about something replaces beginners’ caution with a false sense of competence. Executives who learn a little about something become overconfident. This undermines the quality of their decision-making on that topic.

Five categories of decision-making bias

1. Action-oriented biases

These biases drive us to take action with less thought than we should – even at the highest levels. Just look at this opinion headline in The New York Times on 14 April 2018:

“The Problem With U.S. Foreign Policy? The Urge to ‘Do Something. The establishment in Washington thinks that every problem requires action. Sometimes the best option is doing nothing at all.”

Action-oriented biases include:

2. Interest biases

These arise due to conflicting incentives, including non-financial incentives and emotional attachments.

  • Misaligned individual incentives. People lean towards views or actively seek outcomes favorable to their department, business unit or themselves, at the expense of the organization. These ‘silo thinking’ or ‘turf protection’ views can be held genuinely as well as cynically. The turf in question may be the executive’s budget at risk, staff reduction or reduced number of components in their portfolio/within their responsibility.
  • Inappropriate attachments. Emotional attachment to people, existing products or parts of the business misaligned to current or future business needs.
  • Out-of-kilter perception of corporate goals and objectives. Misaligned importance of, and misinterpreted, goals and objectives. Such perceptions may be unspoken.

3. Pattern-recognition biases

These cause people to recognize patterns even where they don’t exist.

  • Confirmation bias. We like to prove ourselves right and we do that through seeking information and people who reinforce our beliefs. This is made even easier with social media and ‘fake news’. Evidence to the contrary is ignored or not considered sufficiently. This bias includes failure to search impartially for evidence.
  • Subjective experience. Generalizing from a single or a small number of examples that are particularly recent or memorable. These are unlikely to represent a general trend: “The plural of anecdote is not data”.
  • False analogies. Faulty thinking based on wrong perceptions and the mistaken treatment of different things as similar.

4. Stability biases

These create a tendency to take no action when faced by uncertainty.

  • Anchoring. We rely too heavily on the first piece of information, thus ‘anchoring’ later decisions on that first piece and giving it more influence than it justifies. For instance, the starting figure in a negotiation on project costs, or salary, etc. The ‘recommended retail price’ printed on many products is just an anchor.
  • Status quo bias. Preference to stick with the current situation when there is no immediate pressure to change. Time pressures or even laziness might lead to this.
  • Loss aversion. The tendency to feel losses more strongly than equivalent gains, making us more risk-averse than would be justified logically. People are not efficient cost/benefit calculators. We tend to overvalue losses and undervalue gains. In other words, losses are more painful than gains are pleasurable. Therefore, if you want to convince someone about something, don’t focus on the advantages so much – instead highlight how it helps them avoid the disadvantages.
  • The sunk-cost fallacy. “Throwing good money after bad” – We allow unrecoverable past costs of a project, program or activity to influence decisions on future courses of action.

5. Social biases

These happen when people prefer harmony over argument or even constructive challenging and questioning within groups, especially during meetings.

  • Groupthink. Desire for consensus at the cost of a realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.
  • Sunflower management. Tendency of groups to align with the views of their leaders, whether stated or assumed views.

Strategy for tackling decision biases

  1. Diagnose. Analyze recent and past individual or group decisions, especially the ones that have been criticized in hindsight as biased. Consider the politics of the situation, and how you would tactfully propose to introduce ‘debiasing’ steps into the mix. You could circulate any of the McKinsey articles referred to below to other members of the committee or team. Try to find commentary about flawed decisions in your industry, which have been very costly, and which have most likely resulted from biased decision-making. You can send a questionnaire to relevant people briefly asking them to nominate any decisions they believe have been biased. Discuss their perception of the impact of the biases they have raised. You can take steps to preserve their anonymity due to the possible sensitivity of some of the issues, so they are not directly confronting their boss about these issues.
  2. Design. Get your team together (possibly with external advisers) in an off-site meeting to discuss ways to develop more awareness of biases in your area’s decision making. As a group, you could discuss and review the 15 business biases listed above. Decide which biases are the most important to your situation and focus on them rather than spreading yourselves too thin.
  3. Implement. Nominate a senior change champion to maintain debiasing momentum. Establish a record of the key reasons each major project is approved, and document the results achieved over time. Again, seek input from participants into the extent to which they think in hindsight any of the major decisions have been biased. Hold regular meetings to discuss this issue and introduction of relevant techniques outlined below.

Techniques to generally reduce decision bias

  1. Pre-mortem analysis. Get your team members to imagine themselves in a future where the decision has failed, and to think in ‘prospective hindsight’ what failed and why.
  2. ‘Devil’s advocate’/formal challenger/independent observer. This person confronts biasing behavior actively and specifically. A team can also perform the job of challenging the main findings. This approach depends heavily on the alertness and capability of people in the selected role.
  3. Confidential voting. Every person can thus challenge the group without any social pressure. Apps etc can be used for efficient voting.
  4. Textual analysis. Review and perhaps score all evaluations of the proposal by group members. Again, this can be done confidentially to avoid groupthink and sunflower management.
  5. Scenario planning activity. This can be used to expand the range of assumptions behind a plan. Only do this with major proposals because it can be labor-intensive to plan and conduct.
  6. War games. You can put members of your team into your competitors’ shoes so they fight your initiative, probably revealing new marketplace responses you have not considered. Could be a fun activity in some ways.

Tips on countering specific biases

Overconfidence

  • Test strategies under a range of scenarios. Don’t give your team or more senior decision makers 3 options because they will probably go for the middle one. Therefore, always provide a final choice of 2 or 4 options.
  • Add 20-25% more downside to the most pessimistic scenario. We are more likely to be over-optimistic, so allow more for the outcome to be less than perfect.
  • Build more flexibility and options into your strategy to allow more for uncertainty. Be skeptical of strategies based on certainty.

The status quo bias

  • The easy way out is to change nothing or change little. A solution is to conduct a risk analysis on the ‘do nothing’ option as rigorously as to a change option.

Anchoring

  • Present the brain with a number, such as a budget total, and then ask it to estimate a figure for something completely unrelated, and it will tend to anchor its estimate on that first number. Therefore, carefully examine the way in which comparison budget numbers are presented to decision makers. Their perception of a reasonable cost will be influenced by the first number/s they see or discuss relating to the budget, to previous projects or to similar projects elsewhere.

Sunflower management

  • When a team has seen and heard a business proposal, never let the most senior person in the room speak first about the proposal – because sunflowers follow the trajectory of the sun. In other words, once the sun (the leader) speaks, the flower (the others) follow. Team members are more likely to adopt the senior person’s position, which may even be different from their own preferred position, once the senior person has expressed an opinion.

False consensus

False consensus incorporates several of the biases listed above. People tend to over-estimate the extent to which others share their views, beliefs, and experiences – the false consensus effect. False consensus often leads managers to overlook important threats to their organizations and to persist with failing strategies. Research shows many causes, including:

  • Confirmation bias (as above). The tendency to seek out opinions and facts that support our own beliefs and conclusions.
  • Selective recall. The habit of remembering only facts and experiences that reinforce our assumptions.
  • Biased evaluation. The quick acceptance of evidence that supports our conclusions, while subjecting contradictory evidence to tough evaluation and almost certain rejection. For example, we often attribute hostile motives to critics, or question their competence.
  • Groupthink (as above). The pressure to agree with others in team-based cultures.

Examples of false consensus

  • “Our team is 100% behind the new strategy.” (Groupthink)
  • “All the senior executives are fully supportive and they all agree with our strategy.” (False consensus)
  • “I’ve only heard good things from customers and dealers about our new product range.” (Selective experience and selective recall)
  • “OK, so some reviewers are still negative, but they don’t understand our business.” (Biased evaluation)

How to minimize false consensus

  1. Create a culture of challenge in your area. Value open and constructive criticism. Seek contrary views, after checking that opposing views have been well researched. Don’t automatically attribute bad intentions or a lack of understanding from the critics.
  2. Ensure strong checks and balances control the dominant role models. Be particularly wary of people with strong characters who dismiss challenges to their own proposals. Insist that these proposals are independently reviewed by internal or external experts.
  3. Don’t ‘lead the witness.’ Instead of asking for support for your strategy, ask for detailed criticism. Review key assumptions in the analysis of the proposed project, and look for data that contradicts parts of the proposal. Establish a ‘challenger team’ to identify flaws in the strategy being proposed.

How do you correct a poor decision?

You can read about how to sort out a poor decision in my article, “How to fix a bad decision.” Fixing a bad decision can be difficult, but it is better than allowing biased decisions to continue damaging your business results.

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About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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