3 Managers’ Biases You Should be Aware of & How to Avoid Them

In short...

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Bias, is the inclination or prejudice for, or against, one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair. Bias is also feeling or showing inclination or prejudice for, or against, someone or something.

Let’s be honest… we all have biases. Here I want to help you identify your biases and learn how to avoid them.

We all live in our own realities. We have a story, family, friends, work, colleagues, failures, successes…. We all come from a specific place, culture, environment… 

There are unlimited elements which shape our own reality. Even with the best intentions, you are always the main character of your own little movie.

Why bias and assumptions are bad for business

Your way of seeing the world, coupled with your expertise as a manager will forge easy answers to problems, snap judgments, and even automated habits or reflexes.

They’re familiar, fast and you likely know what the outcome will be. Deliberating and weighing different viewpoints and consequences whilst seeking additional sources of information is much harder, slower, more laborious. That’s why it’s so tempting to “go with your gut”. It’s our instinctual response, one of the decisive personality traits we are taught to listen to.

Our gut is what motivates us to change lanes on the highway when we sense the car ahead may be unpredictable. It’s how we size up checkout lines and pick which we think will move fastest. 

However, to be a good leader, our mindset must include a decision-making process which weighs up multiple short-term and long-term consequences and complexities.

Though our experience may make it seem obvious that we should add an additional feature to the product here, start a new campaign there, or create a specific workflow in the new service… this is basically proof that we make assumptions. We think we know our customer like they’re our friend. 

It’s imperative we don’t simply do what seems right based on what’s worked previously. I see biases shine brightest when it comes to customers.

But it all starts with customers… customer centricity, remember? So if it’s starting off wrong and you build a whole system made of bias-filled assumptions, no wonder you can’t reach your objectives.

I understand it’s tempting to use assumptions when making decisions, especially when we have years of practice. 

‘We, humans, are so similar, falling into the same patterns and doing the same things…’, ‘Most of us are followers…’ – these kinds of thoughts and assumptions walk the easy path of generalization.

Mass marketing and mass communications do not work anymore. People have been educated about old fashioned business methods. They have been compromised by all kinds of biases for years.

If you want some facts, check out research by Tom Farrell on Martechseries regarding the relevancy gap. This is where businesses believe marketing communications are effective – but consumers disagree.

It notes that businesses think 13 percent of the marketing messages they send to consumers are unsolicited, while consumers rate them at 85 percent unsolicited.

Farrell’s article is filled with examples of businesses that got it all wrong when it comes to customers. The lesson is, always assume you know nothing about your customers.

Now you might experience resistance… that’s ok, it’s your ego talking. Being wrong is not always pleasant but is an important learning experience.

Being an expert is good, it’s important to develop some expertise and knowledge in what you like to do. But this expertise building must remain a humble process. Being an expert does not mean an all-mighty knowledgeable pro.

What is really expected from an expert is methodology and know-how strengths that help people to reach their objectives.

When you become aware of your bias, you open the door to more comprehension, more empathy, more creativity, more humility. Also, it’s your responsibility. 

As a manager, you have the authority and liability to deliver products, services, and messages to the world. To do so you make multiple decisions every day to ensure the best customer experience and bring business results to your company. 

Approach each step of the process with openness so your messages and engagements are relevant and helpful for people. Identify your problematic biases, though you may not even be aware of having them, so you can start to tackle them.

Let’s go through the three main bias issues:

Similarity Bias

Similarity bias means you inadvertently end up working with the same cast of characters over and over again. It’s easy, it feels comfortable. You feel like you’re on the same page. Conversations are effortless. You reach agreements quickly.

But you’re probably not getting the variety of input you need to get the full picture, nor the innovative ideas you want. You’re probably not fully auditing or challenging your thinking about what is possible from what you know already.

Make sure you include people from all steps of the customer journey – from awareness to consideration, to purchase, support and retention – in the discussion. Is this currently a group of people who “get you”? If so, if you want to be an effective leader, it’s time to branch out.

It can be constructive to include representation from the full journey and, if you’re feeling confident on this already, invite the people who tend to disagree with you. Listen to how quickly different ideas, interpretations, and ways of thinking emerge.

Check out the Customer Journey Map free Guide I developed for you, for a clear view of the team you should work with thanks to the easy listing of the stakeholders.

Also, to see similarity bias from another angle, observe when the team tries to fill data gaps with their own experiences; where they assume they and the customer think alike or have similar qualities. 

I’ve seen that everywhere – people offering products or service expertise from a company talking about customer experience as if they were an actual customer… Except that’s not true, you’re not a random customer – you’re not even a customer! 

You cannot compare your feelings and thoughts with those of your targets’, no matter how strong your empathy is. There’s a high probability your profile does not match your target personas’. 

Risk Aversion Bias

Risk aversion bias is where you shelve new or different ideas that would help you to solve a major customer experience problem, or leapfrog past a heavy process, in favor of less ambitious safe bets.

Fear of things not working out can also mean you keep doing what you’ve always done, just this time in yellow, or maybe with balloons… It’s what takes you round in circles of repetitive, unsolved problems.

So what can you do to counter risk aversion bias?

If making a bold move seems overwhelming, break things down into smaller chunks or whatever will make each step small enough to easily manage any unexpected outcomes.  Then you can motivate your team into experimenting with risk taking on a safer, smaller scale. This can be highly effective and generate more enthusiasm for the practice.

This approach is also helpful for presenting innovations to stakeholders. They don’t have to commit to one large resourcing or budget ask, but may be positively motivated by smaller, more manageable ones. 

It’s directly inspired by the agile world where the keyword is ‘experimentation’. Test and learn as you go on with your little pieces of the project, and move on when you feel more confident, once you have proven results or learned strong lessons.

Yes, this principle might lead to failures. This usually makes people uneasy, but if you’re going to be innovative, you will need to try new things. You’ll likely have to try several times before you find what works. 

I find language very powerful, here.

Instead of saying… Try…
What do you think we should do? What do we know so far?
Should we do this or that? I don’t know. Let’s test both and find out.
Well, that was a failure. What happened? What did we learn?

Using the language of experimentation can help you reduce feelings of risk, so you can get better at trying new ideas – and that will help you to become more innovative. It’s not about arguing points of view and then hoping you’re right, but testing things out in small chunks, meeting regularly, and keeping the ideas going.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms your beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts them.

I have also witnessed how some people interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. 

In short, it’s confirmation bias that makes figures say anything and everything!

It is widespread and the hardest to tackle; persistence is required.

I’m guessing you’ve been in a situation where there was a disagreement and – even though both parties were exposed to the same evidence, and neither can find a solution – both parties are convinced their interpretation is accurate.

Clearly, it’s not a simple situation and there is no easy way out of this bias. 

Being a digital consultant, I deal with a lot of data. I always use a scientific trick to avoid most cases of confirmation bias.

First I state some hypotheses BEFORE collecting data. These are often built with the team and stakeholders. Don’t do it on your own… The method once you have your dataset is simple: use science researcher methodology and prove yourself wrong!

Despite seeming counter-intuitive, or even contradictory, the best way to prove our beliefs, our assumptions, our hypotheses is to seek evidence to the contrary. Did you know that, in science research, an experiment is not taken seriously if you cannot prove it wrong?

Here are some questions I always ask myself to ensure I’m not falling into my biases:

  • What did I automatically agree with?
  • What have I rejected or ignored without even realizing?
  • How did I react when I agreed? And when I disagreed?
  • Did this data confirm ideas I already had? Why?
  • What if I consider the opposite hypothesis?

Then – once the data has spoken – my teammates and I can cut short discussions. 

In conclusion…

The three main biases to avoid to become a responsible and efficient manager, are:

  1. Similarity bias: diversity is important. Don’t jump on similar bandwagons – dare to discuss with people who disagree. You’ll learn a lot!
  2. Risk aversion bias: See failing as learning, break down ideas and go step-by-step, to test and learn your way to solutions
  3. Confirmation bias: Be aware your beliefs are stronger than you think! Set several hypotheses and prove yourself wrong to get the best argumentation on the data you collected.

I hope you find these ideas to sharpen your relevancy and help you implement important soft skills, useful. If you do try to adopt these business practices, tell me how you get on! I’d be interested to hear how you find them for improving leadership skills, too – I’m sure you’ll have some good stories!


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Amélie Beerens


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