The tools and technology that help us overcome human bias at work
You are in a meeting. Your new junior colleague gives their opinion, and you take little notice. Five minutes later, your boss restates the same idea and this time, your head starts to nod.
Because of the extraordinary number of decisions we face on a daily basis, our brains have evolved to filter our thoughts; we are hardwired to process information both consciously and unconsciously. While this prevents our thinking becoming too overwhelming, it also means that we often aren’t even aware of our how we have come to the decisions we have made.
Siding with people you identify with and disagreeing with those you do not is entirely natural and just one example of over 150 identified human cognitive biases that have already been identified.
All humans are unconsciously biased.
Our biases are normal, but they evolved to help keep us alive when hunting and gathering, not for optimising the modern workplace. Meetings are a particular situation where our biases have a huge effect.
In this article, we’ll explore what renowned thought leaders Patrick Lencioni and Ray Dalio have done to reduce the effect of human biases in meetings, and we will give some practical advice for how to overcome them.
Patrick Lencioni and The Table Group: Enabling Healthy Conflict
Patrick Lencioni, best-selling author and founder of The Table Group, cites fear of conflict as one of the five dysfunctions of a team.
For most of us, conflict in the workplace feels uncomfortable; this is particularly true for larger organisations when we do not know our colleagues well. Think about it though, when we are at home, in a safe environment with our family, we don’t have the same problem with arguing points. This is because we evolved in tribal groups and we need to be in a trusting environment before passionate debate feels acceptable.
Most organisations have meetings where people do not say what they really think – they exist in artificial harmony. When this happens, teams reduce their thought diversity and revert to the most confident and often the most senior peoples’ ideas coming out on top.
Lencioni’s answer is to build a culture of trust between colleagues and explicitly demand objective, healthy conflict.
The Ingredients for the culture:
- Teams build a foundation of trust where people can engage in unfiltered, honest debate
- Team Leaders actively mine for underlying differences of opinion and bring them to the surface in meetings to reduce gossip and politics
- After the debate, when a decision is made, the entire team gets behind it
Lencioni has built The Table Group to train organisations in establishing this culture of trust and healthy conflict using explanatory frameworks and exercises, some of which they offer free of charge on their website.
The culture of healthy conflict allows team-members to have their say before decisions are made but The Table Group do not specify any particular decision-making methodology or tools. This is different to Dalio’s work at Bridgewater which we will discuss shortly.
Finally, when decisions do not go someone’s way, Lencioni encourages people to commit to the outcome and not to sabotage any subsequent work. This concept aligns precisely to General George S Patton’s famous quote that is often quoted in the business press that “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
Ray Dalio and Bridgewater: Enabling an Idea Meritocracy
The greatest tragedy, according to Dalio, is acting on opinions and beliefs in your own mind without stress-testing them first. How do you know that you’re right without diversity of opinion and thought? The problem is, we have evolved to feel threatened when our opinions are challenged so we prefer to remain in situations where we are not.
The outcome is an unhealthy cycle where we reinforce our own biases, creating echo chambers where we filter our lives to deliver ourselves only information that we already agree with.
But how does this translate into the workplace?
Ray Dalio founded Bridgewater as an ideas meritocracy, where people are expected and encouraged to disagree with each other. Dalio wants the best ideas implemented through a combination of culture and technology-assisted decision making.
The ingredients for the culture:
- Radical truth
- Radical transparency
While Dalio wanted everyone to have a voice at the ideas stage, he realised that some people’s’ ideas would be more believable. He, therefore, did not want to run a democracy where peoples’ opinions hold equal value or an autocracy where the most senior people push through their proposals.
Instead, Dalio looked to establish a decision-making methodology assisted by technology. At Bridgewater, employees use digital tools such as the dot collector to combine their radically honest opinions which Dalio demonstrates 9 min into his TED Talk.
The technology helps Bridgewater’s people see others’ perspectives and allows them to step outside of their unconsciously biased views to make more objective decisions.
Commentary on both of the cultures
Neither Lencioni, nor Dalio explicitly talk about human biases, but the similar cultural frameworks that they have pioneered both work primarily because they help teams overcome the flaws in our thinking.
You may be thinking that having a culture of transparency and honest debate also sounds obvious, so how practical is this type of culture to implement?
Imagine that from next week, you and your colleagues were all going to be totally honest with each other at work. You would be expected to tell your boss that you thought her idea was terrible, despite it being the day before your annual appraisal.
Lencioni paints a graphic picture of the difficulties of implementing his framework:
A fractured team is just like a broken arm or leg; fixing it is always painful, and sometimes you have to rebreak it to make it heal correctly. And the rebreak hurts a lot more than the initial break, because you have to do it on purpose.
For Dalio, the clue is in the name – radical – because implementing a culture of transparency and honesty outside of a family setting feels so radically different to us. Bridgewater expects new employees to take 18 months to adjust to the culture of radical truth within the workplace and there is a high attrition rate among new hires who cannot adapt.
The culture is hard to implement but is it worth it, have they been successful?
Yes – The Table Group works with 78 of the Fortune 100 and many of these organisations directly attribute their success to Lencioni’s work. Bridgewater, on the other hand, is the largest hedge fund in the USA and Dalio is now one of the wealthiest people on the planet.
What is the difference between them?
Where the two approaches differ is that at Bridgewater, Dalio has invested heavily in developing technology to further help remove human biases when making decisions. This combination of culture and technology provides the first example of how teams can work together more intelligently to acknowledge and work around human biases to achieve more together.
If you do not have 18 months to radically change your culture, or access to Bridgewater’s technology, here is some actionable advice that can be implemented immediately.
Practical things you can do in meetings to remove bias:
- If you want honest opinions from everyone in a meeting, make sure that people lower in hierarchy put their ideas out first – if you go straight to the expert or senior person, most are likely to follow so thought diversity is reduced.
- If you have a new person in the team, invite them to give their opinion first, as if they were at their old company. Team’s need to be shaken up with new thinking and they may look at the situation from an entirely different perspective.
- To remove the chance of people anchoring on the first thought put out to the room, get them to write their ideas down on post-its first, then cluster similar ones before discussing them.
- Get to know your people on a more personal level, the Table Group’s Personal Histories Exercise takes 25 minutes and helps to build trust in your team. Replace a meeting with it.
- To test whether you have been honest with yourselves as a team and catch bad decisions before the end of a meeting follow a checklist of open questions, e.g.
- What is going to stop us achieving what we have said we will do?
- When will we be able to implement this?
- What must we not do to achieve this?
By explicitly talking about the success of Lencioni and Dalio’s work in terms of how their methodologies overcome human bias in the workplace, we have the opportunity to focus on all the biases that have been identified and design tools to reduce their effects.
To date, most tools have been in the form of manual exercises and training to initiate cultures that feel more like a family than a regular corporate environment – then demanding people tell the truth in meetings.
While the concept is simple, radically truthful cultures are notoriously hard to implement, so the most exciting opportunity for the future of work is in the progression of technology similar to that used at Bridgewater.
However, while Bridgewater’s dot collector tool helps their teams to act on the best ideas and make better decisions in meetings, it still requires the culture of radical truth and radical transparency to put forward the ideas in the first place.
But if Bridgewater can use smart digital interfaces to work around human bias at the decision stage, it should be possible to use different digital interfaces to work around human bias at the ideas stage.
The ultimate opportunity, therefore, is to design digital tools that help teams debate ideas honestly and decide to act on the best ones without needing to go through 18 months of cultural adaptation.
When this is achieved, any group of people will be able to amplify their team intelligence in an engaging way, and it will feel good because we are not fighting evolution.