By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

One of the greatest challenges we leaders face in times of great uncertainty – like now – is how to minimize the impact of biases creeping into our decision making. 

That’s because research shows that our cognitive decision biases are most likely to raise their ugly heads in highly changeable, uncertain and stressful environments—just like the one we’re in.

People with little or no self-awareness are going to scratch their heads and wonder what the problem is. If you ask them, they don’t have any problem with bias. Everything is just exactly as they see it.

Sounds like a wonderfully simple and straight forward way to live -- except for one little thing. Others see our biases even when we don’t, often especially when we don’t.

Fruit of faith

One of the fruits of faith can be that it can help us to become ever more self-aware.

Of course, that’s not necessarily true. For some their faith functions primarily to give them more self-certainty and self-righteousness. But for mature believers who work to step outside themselves and see the actual impact of all their good intentions, faith can be a constant reminder that they are loved in all their imperfection.

With that assurance, they can courageously attempt to really measure the impact of their behavior on others and to see how they inevitably come up short of perfection.

It’s this kind of self-awareness that can help us see how various biases can creep into our perceptions and evaluations – undermining the efficacy of our decisions as leaders.

Biases are like viruses

We like to think of ourselves as “rational animals.” We objectively evaluate situations, weigh alternatives and make rational choices, right?

Wrong! In fact, that description never describes the whole process of complex decision-making. Biases of all sorts creep into our calculations.

Some worry that emotions can color rational decisions. But that’s the least of our concerns. Indeed, decisions that are the result of weighing both objective and affective factors are most likely to be the very best ones.

What’s at issue here are biases that color our perceptions of reality and knock our calculations out of whack. And they’re everywhere. In fact, an article in Wikipedia lists 124 decision-oriented biases.

When you realize how many ways there are for us to distort our own perceptions of reality, you can’t help but wonder how or why any decision turns out to be a good one. Here’s my guess: It’s a sign of God’s grace in the world.

Nine big ones

An article in the MITSloan Management Review discusses nine major types of bias. It’s written by Thomas H. Davenport, the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, as well as a fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and a senior adviser to Deloitte’s Analytics and Cognitive practice.

Here’s a quick list of the ones he highlights:

  • Status quo bias.
  • Political bias.
  • Confirmation bias.
  • Availability heuristic.
  • Framing effect.
  • Bandwagon effect.
  • Hostile attribution bias.
  • Neglect of probability.
  • Normalcy bias.