Biases can get in the way of teamwork

Recently I have been working with an executive team that needs to work through some issues in order to be more aligned and work better together. The team has gone through some massive changes over the last few years because they have gone through massive growth.

They now have a team in place that has the best capability to match the newly evolved business. The challenge now is to get them to work together collaboratively. Like all teams, they go through the normal process of forming, storming, norming and performing. At the moment the newest member of the team has joined, so they are in the ‘storming’ phase with a couple of others in the team, whereas the rest of the team have moved onto a ‘norming’ phase with each other. The CEO is challenged with how to have the conversation with this new person as they are butting heads with some other team members and creating friction, which effects the productivity.

This kind of friction happens in all organisations that go through restructure and growth. As new team members join, and the roles of others change, individuals naturally go through the forming, storming, norming and performing phases until they get into their groove. Some move through quickly, while some get stuck in a particular phase and something needs to shift, a conversation needs to be had to move through this phase.

Are your biases affecting how you lead?

Something that can often stand in our way is the complex human dynamic of forming biases, something we are all prone to do. No matter how rational and objective we think we are in our management style, the truth is we all make mistakes in our reasoning, recollections and evaluations of others, due to our tendency to hold onto our preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information. Like everything, being aware of these biases is the first step in attempting to push them to the side to see the bigger picture and carving out a better way forward.Here are the four main cognitive biases we all make and how the CEO in my example might be leaning into these;

  1. Affinity bias – we listen to and value the opinion of people who are most like us. We do this because it’s easy and it takes less effort than listening to the opinions of people less like us. The challenge for the CEO is that she is only talking to the people she already has a good relationship with to strengthen her opinion. “What do you think of X? Do you think they are being difficult? I do too. We both agree, X is difficult.” Additionally, she may choose not to seek out the opinion of those in the team who are going to have opinions contrary to hers. This is naturally draining and unpleasant as it works against her own beliefs and preferences and doesn’t help to justify hers.
  2. Confirmation bias – This kind of bias is a big problem for leaders who need to be open to feedback, solutions and new ways of doing things. With confirmation bias, we look for evidence to support our current beliefs and ignore evidence that undermines our current beliefs. The way this might sounds in my example is; As I talk to the CEO, I hear lots of examples that prove the CEO’s point and opinion about the new member in the team. What I do not hear (and probably exists) are examples that undermine her belief. By choosing to disregard or ignore feedback that contradicts her beliefs and preferences she is unable to see things form another point of view; which would help the situation enormously.
  3. Recency bias –we focus on the most recent examples, as they are fresh in our memories, and ignore the things that happened beforehand. An example of how this may play out is the whole team gets together as a team on an away day, to discuss the challenges and differences and everyone responds really well to the face-to-face interaction and collaboration. There is a general agreement that everyone is moving together in the same direction, they just have different ways of going about it. There’s a level of acceptance and unification, where the whole team feels they are on the same page. Shortly after, something happens that throws a curveball to this sense of collaboration. An email is sent, the CEO reads the email and, because it’s the most recent event, it sticks in their mind more, overshadowing and somewhat undoing all the good collaboration achieved on the away day; simply because it’s the most recent example.
  4. Attribution bias – when we attribute an intention to another person’s action, even though we don’t actually know what their intention was, simply to feel justified in our opinions. This bias leads us to believe that what people do, reflects who they are. This might sound like “they did that because …they are a difficult person” or “they did that because …they are lazy”. Of all the biases, this one is the most insidious. As leaders, the tendency to assume that someone’s behaviour is a fundamental part of who they are is very limiting. It prevents us from seeking how we can improve external situations to make improvements and move forward. Studies show we tend to attribute internal causes to other people and external causes to ourselves. So, someone else does something because they are difficult/ lazy/ jealous. Yet we do something because of something out of my control; I was late because of …traffic, I didn’t get the job done on time because …the internet was down.

In order for the CEO to have the conversation that needs to be had with the new member of the team, they need to be aware of, and then push aside their four biases. This is in itself difficult to do, as it requires us to push against human nature. By removing these biases however, more perspective is allowed and the team can move forward.

Do your biases sometimes get in the way of leading your team? I can help navigate you and your team through these and show you how to have the conversation to break through and get everyone on the same page. I’d love to share my experience and fool-proof leadership techniques with you. Don’t hesitate. Get in touch today.

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