Overcoming bias: 3 tips for better insight into your employees and markets

While companies claim to value diversity often they harbour personal and organisational bias limiting access to wider perspectives

Let us look at three examples of how some management teams I have coached were able to identify and overcome biases that were blocking important insights about their employees and markets. 

By “insight”, I mean new understanding that makes a difference to an individual’s or an organisation’s thinking, decision-making, and action. Note that this definition of insight requires two parts:

  • new understanding – a truly breakthrough realisation about some aspect of your business (e.g., employees, customers, or the marketplace); and
  • what difference it makes – that is, how that new understanding affects what an individual or the organisation thinks about and what actions are taken.

1. Overcoming the “older is wiser” bias

Many senior managers tend to discount the value of hearing the perspectives of younger and/or newer employees. The managers’ prevailing bias is the conviction that “We will not learn much from them.”  Consequently, the managers’ entrenched understandings of their business are not adequately challenged, a risky position in our world of constant change.

Here is how one firm worked to overcome that bias. Executives had frequently discussed their common understanding of the millennials working in the business, describing the younger staff as a predominantly homogeneous group, sharing common interests and tastes, and not necessarily committed to corporate life.

However, some of the executives admitted that they had relatively little interaction with millennials in their day-to-day work. With the encouragement of the HR team, the executives invited a group of millennials to lead a “teach-in,” spending an hour “teaching” the executives how the younger staffers experience their work, how they like to spend their time, what social and cultural trends they pay attention to, and how and why they use social media. 

Several “Aha!” insights came out of this session. The executives realised that what some millennials most desired was not just a reward in the form of “nice words” from their bosses or even better pay. The younger staff wanted to be involved in projects of importance to the business that would provide an opportunity to showcase their knowledge, talents, ambition, and willingness to learn. The executives concluded that their self-worth and identity were far more entwined with their corporate life for many millennials than senior management had previously appreciated.

This new understanding of millennials led the executive team to look for new opportunities to engage their younger staff, exploring a series of new questions:

  • How might each department or function engage some millennials in one or more projects that would “stretch” them while also giving the firm the benefit of more diverse perspectives?
  • How might teams of millennials be given special projects as learning (and “teaching”) opportunities with senior executives?
  • What current analysis projects could benefit from the engagement of small teams of millennials?

Overcoming the senior management’s bias became a win-win triumph: The younger staff became more energised and committed to the company. The senior management gained valuable insight into their employees and the profile of millennials in their customer base.


2. Overcoming the “know-it-all” bias

In another firm, management believed that they already understood how satisfied their employees were based on the relatively positive staff ratings routinely collected in the company’s climate surveys. However, a new member of the HR team suggested that they need to dig deeper to understand the employees. 

So, the HR team decided to conduct a different type of survey. Rather than relying primarily on closed-end questions, the HR team decided they would ask only a few open-ended questions, encouraging employees to write as much as they wished in response to questions such as these:

  • What do you find most intriguing about your job?
  • What is it about the firm that motivates – or demotivates – you to come to work each day?
  • What is one thing you would like to change about this firm? 

The responses led to a new understanding for many managers that although the overall average ratings from the previous surveys had been generally positive, dramatic differences existed across the departments. The differences were evidenced in the emotion-laden words used by individuals, such as: “My work makes me feel like an automaton”; “I become exhilarated working with my colleagues”; and “My boss seems intimidating, which makes me hesitant to speak up.” 

As a result, the executives realised that they did not know enough about the distinct cultures of their departments.  The big takeaway was that the differences across the “local” cultures were more deeply embedded than previously believed. 

The HR team decided to reevaluate many of its policies and procedures to determine how well they were meeting the different needs of each department. The team also decided to work with the department heads to assess whether and how the local culture benefited or impeded the work processes.

3. Overcoming the “my data is better than yours” bias

The HR team in the example above also encountered another type of bias that was hampering the business. In working with some line managers, the HR team found that the managers held quite different views of the business based on the type of data that guided them. 

While financial managers focused on spreadsheets and income graphs, IT managers were riveted to production schedules, and marketing managers put the spotlight on colourful reviews on social media. Each functional manager tended to discount the value of the other functions’ data benchmarks.

This new recognition of the prevalence of data biases led to senior managers’ commitment to developing department-specific workshops to help overcome the biases. For example, they examined how their local cultures affected preferences for the following:

  • data types (e.g., quantitative vs non-quantitative),
  • data sources (e.g., electronic vs human),
  • data use (e.g., developing spreadsheets vs narratives or stories), and
  • data choice (e.g., date to use vs date to downplay or ignore).

They also examined how these differences influenced their data analysis, organisation of findings, and presentations to managers. By identifying the impact of their biases, the managers achieved their goal of overcoming the common tunnel vision among many functional managers. They began to incorporate a richer variety of information sources and perspectives.

We all have biases – which ones are holding you back?

Here is a good starting point to help you overcome your personal and organisational biases: Ask yourself what voices and resources in your business you tend to ignore or discount, and then consider what value you may be missing from those blind spots. Undoubtedly, you will find a few surprises that can help lead to breakthrough insight for you and your organisation.

By Dr Liam Fahey, Professor of Management Practice at Babson College USA, Cofounder of Leadership Forum and author of the new book, The Insight Discipline.

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