Webinar Wrap-Up: If you have a brain, you have biases. How do we manage them?

In last week’s webinar, we explored the neuroscience of bias, helping us understand how to recognize the many ways it influences our responses and actions. More importantly, we identified several actions you can take to help to mitigate its impact in our lives.

You can watch the complete webinar on-demand here, or read on for the highlights, as well as a Q&A with the presenters.

Understanding the Brain

Our brains are designed to keep us safe and to conserve energy, building our reserves so that when unexpected challenges arise, we are able to meet them. This means the brain has evolved to be:

  • Threat sensitive: our brains may anticipate threats that aren’t there – and react as if they are – thousands of times, just so we will be ready to respond when a threat does arise.
  • Lazy: our brains have evolved to default to doing things that take less energy – i.e., things that are known. Learning new things takes energy; to conserve energy, our brains prefer habits (whether they are good habits or bad).

When the brain is under extreme stress, the older and more primitive portions take over. (Think the “flight, flight, or freeze” response.) The prefrontal cortex – the part that controls those vital higher functions we rely on for more complex thinking, reasoning, and decision-making – takes a back seat.

Our brains work this way for a reason: they encounter exponentially more information than they can process. In every second, we encounter 11 million pieces of information; we capture just 50 of those pieces. How many do we process? Just 7.

That leaves a lot of blanks. To fill in those blanks, the brain takes “short cuts” – those short cuts are biases.

These shortcuts cause us to make unconscious decisions. Most of these unconscious decisions are wrong. This is especially true if the problem or issue is complex… like another person. Our biases help our brains make snap judgments about people that we never consciously realize we’re making. Using small data points, we make decisions about people that then extend to their entire character. Our brains are also wired to cover up our lack of knowledge. We become over-confident in these initial perceptions, and resist questioning them.

Dozens of these cognitive biases have been identified by psychologists – some well-known, like Confirmation Bias, Fundamental Attribution Error, and Stereotyping. (If you are curious, you may like this fascinating Cognitive Bias Codex that names and sorts more than 100 of them.)

It is essential to recognize that while these biases may be unfair and under-informed, they may result in bad decisions, and they may cause us to make terrible errors in judgment – they are present in all of us. These biases are part of how the brain functions. We cannot erase them; at best, we can learn new behaviors to help us mitigate them.

Motivational Biases

After decades of studying motivation using the Individual Directions Inventory™, MRG has some unique insights into the biases that stem from our deepest motivations. While many people can recognize their own behavior patterns, often we do not take as much time to examine the motivations that drive those behaviors. These motivations originate in our formative years and can become so ingrained over time that they can be very difficult for us to recognize objectively.

The motivational biases we develop can manifest in a number of ways. A few examples:

“Everyone wants my help.”

For someone who is highly motivated by giving and supporting others, they may develop an assumption bias that everyone around them wants their help, when in fact that may not be the case at all (particularly for those who are less motivated by receiving support).

“Data is the most important element in decision-making – everyone knows that.”

An individual who is driven to analyze and interpret could easily make the estimation error that all people like making decisions the same way they do – by relying on data – when in fact, others may rely more on instinctive response, future projections or other factors.

“Nobody wants a bunch of praise and fuss about their accomplishments.”

For someone who is less motivated by getting external recognition, the idea that others may relish getting public praise is hard to fathom.

Now imagine individuals with all of these motivational biases – and many more – coming together in a collaborative work environment. It is easy to see the role that motivational biases can play in misalignment and even conflict in the workplace. As we engage in development work, whether with teams or individuals, it is imperative that we help people understand their own potential biases and learn strategies to help manage them.

4 Strategies to Manage Biases

As we’ve establish, biases cannot be erased – they are part of our cognitive function, and they won’t go away. As we have also learned, the negative impact of these cognitive shortcuts can be powerful.

To help individuals mitigate the impact of their own biases, work on these four strategies:

  1. Increase your awareness.

Become aware of your own motivations (using an assessment like the IDI is one avenue to getting to this information, rather than attempting self-observation, which can be tricky to do objectively). Work to understand your internal and external triggers. Everyone’s brain becomes more taxed under stress, and brain that is more taxed is likely to take even more shortcuts than usual.

  1. Take time to reflect.

Look back at your past decisions – particularly those that resulted in outcomes you are unsatisfied with. How could decision-making have been improved? Consider also times when you perceive that others’ biases may have impacted the decisions they made about you. How did this feel? Were you able to get them to move past their assumptions? If so, what work did it take?

  1. Slow down.

Take the time to get to know people; reserve judgment as you collect more data points than initial impressions allow. Create a practice of taking three deep breaths when you find yourself having a highly charged reaction to someone or something. Learn to recognize what a considered response looks like vs. an automatic response. Start listening to your internal narrative. What are the patterns? What story do you tell yourself?

  1. Break the habit cycle.

Ask for feedback, and work on asking questions rather than making statements. Take the time to sleep on challenging decisions rather than giving into initial responses. Spend more time using your imagination. Try a few mental exercises: how would I advise someone else about this decision? How would I decide this a year from now?

No amount of mindfulness will eliminate our biases. With greater self-awareness, however, we can do the hard work of recognizing them, and of retraining ourselves – to make our responses considered, and not reactive, and to make our decisions informed by evidence, not strictly emotion.

For a deeper dive, you can watch the complete webinar on demand here. Read on for answers from presenters Tricia Naddaff and David Ringwood to questions from our webinar attendees.


Questions & Answers

Q: How do we use our biases as a positive interactive mode, rather than only negative things that need to be suppressed?

A: This is in part an implicit part of the IDI – extremely high or low scores tend to increase the likelihood of bias, but there are advantages and disadvantages in equal measure no matter where you score on the scales. The skill here is to appreciate both, to embrace the advantages and to try to mitigate the disadvantages. This is however contingent on awareness, and this is where the feedback and the norm-referenced aspect of the tool can really help. We all normalize our own condition to some extent, so opening our eyes to potential areas of bias gives up an opportunity to be more observant of ourselves and to then be more objective in how we view others. This can change what might otherwise be a disadvantage into a positive behavioral choice.

 

Q: How do we engage more people in the difficult conversation about their own biases without making them feel accused? Especially if they do not see their own biases?

A: Sometimes it is easier to see other people’s biases than it is to see our own so this situation can come up with uncomfortable frequency.  We have found that helping people understand how universal biases are by giving them some introductory information about the brain and sharing some examples of easily recognizable biases (like confirmation bias) that it takes the idea of biases out of the realm of something to be ashamed of and into the realm of something universal and something to be curious about.  In addition and depending on the degree of psychological safety that exists in the relationship, it can also be helpful to share an example of a bias you have and how you are working with it as a means of extending an invitation to the other person to consider and possible share one of their own biases.

Q: Given that we all have our own biases, how do we ensure that we do not project those on our clients? Is it a matter of working hard at understanding ourselves through self-awareness of our motivators?

A: The short answer is yes – it requires developing self-understanding. The more we understand ourselves and our biases, the easier it is to observe others more objectively and to recognize instances when we might be projecting some of our own orientations and biases on others, or making assumptions about others that have no basis in fact. This is also why it’s important to understand the full range of IDI scales as well as our own individual scores. It helps us to understand things from that other perspective and then to reflect back on our own motivational orientations.

 

Q: How much of our bias is developed through our development in childhood? And how do we ensure we do not promote those on to our own children?

A: It is hard to quantify exactly how much occurs through childhood versus how much is either innate to the human condition or how much evolves through post-childhood life experience. The neuroscience suggests that these is something innate about bias and that it is a natural and purposeful process associated with cognitive economy, so it is safe to assume that this is consistent for every individual, although how it shows up might be more unique to the individual. Irrespective of where our biases come from or when exactly they emerged, it is important to understand them so that we can develop insight and awareness. Our ability to not promote these on our own children will be largely contingent on that awareness and on our ability to observe ourselves. The subconscious nature of biases and blind spots alone suggests that awareness is the both the starting point and the ongoing process through which we can monitor the parenting choices we make and the extent to which we are also effective in self-regulation.

 

Q: Would you recommend that all coaches become more aware of neuroscience within their coaching skillset? If so, what resources would you recommend?

A: Absolutely!  There are many great resources out there now.  Here are three books I think are helpful:

I also really like this video presentation for understanding how the brain responds to stress (the production quality isn’t ideal but the content is very good).

Q: Once I find a particular source of bias, how do I handle it?

A: While we shared several things that can help in navigating the automatic response to biases in the webinar, the “quick start” response is to:

  1. Identify the internal and external conditions where you bias is likely to come into play
  2. Slow yourself down in those situations:
    1. Take a deep breath
    2. Ask a question (of yourself or of someone else)
    3. Give yourself some time before you engage/respond

Biases are engaged automatically so if you can gain insight about when this is likely to happen for you and if you can then introduce some kind of pause for yourself, you can essentially bring your prefrontal cortex back online and think about the situation more intentionally and less automatically, thereby creating the opportunity for you to mitigate your own bias.


(Are you part of the MRG network? Log into the MRG Knowledge Base once to access more webinars, along with the full MRG research library.)

Also, if there’s anything we at MRG can do to help support you or advise you as you transition to more online coaching, training, and facilitation in the coming weeks, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re all working through this together (even if we’re apart!).


About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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