Being a Better Leader by Learning to Avoid Bias

Leadership and learning are closely intertwined: an important part of leading any team or organisation is guiding it towards better performance, which is often driven by learning and applying new strategies, systems and technologies. However, even if you actively pursue learning opportunities, there are obstacles that can impede your ability to absorb new ideas.

In this article, we highlight types of cognitive bias that can stand in the way of your efforts to learn and what you can do to avoid them as you strive to become a better leader.

How bias hinders learning

Cognitive bias is the tendency to reach an irrational conclusion as a result of filtering external input through your existing views, preferences and experience. In other words, your mind is putting its own spin on the information it receives.  This kind of bias can pose a problem when you are learning. Effective learning requires you to open your mind and take in new ideas, but cognitive biases can skew this process.  For example, if you are learning a new technique for carrying out a work task in a more efficient way, a cognitive bias may convince you that the old way is better and thus put up mental barriers to learning before you even give this new method a fair chance. 

Pitfalls to avoid

Cognitive bias comes in different shapes and forms, yet many have the potential to hamper learning. Here are a few examples you should be on alert for:

Status quo bias – a preference to stick to the existing way of doing things.

Functional fixedness – an inability to imagine objects or ideas functioning in a way other than how you have traditionally used them.

Confirmation bias – a tendency to accept information that aligns with your existing point of view and reject information that counters it.

Not-invented-here bias – a tendency to reject ideas or ways of doing things that you perceive to come from elsewhere (e.g. a different industry or culture).

Bandwagon effect – a tendency to align your behaviour with how others around you are thinking or behaving.

Recency bias – a tendency to place more value on more recent ideas and less value on older ideas.

These biases are pervasive and unconscious, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome. The best way to prevent them from hindering your learning is to be aware of them and to watch for red flags.  For example, be on guard for thoughts like “But that’s not the way we do it here” and “Why should I listen to this teacher? They don’t have my industry knowledge and experience.” These are warning signs that you’re being swayed by functional fixedness and the not-invented-here bias.

The best leaders are learners

The best leaders are those who watch the horizon for what’s next and learn the skills and strategies needed to seize the opportunities of tomorrow.

This article was originally published by Lim Han Ee @Emerge Performance