Want to Be a More Effective Decision Maker? Beware of Blind Spots and Biases that Can Interfere

By Karen Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can't see. Photo: K. Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can’t see. Photo: K. Utgoff

Business decisions are made every day and mistakes are inevitable — none of us can read minds, know the future, or wait for perfect information. However, it’s sad and unnecessarily costly when a mistake is preventable.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could reduce avoidable errors at little or no cost? My experience tells me that many business owners, executives and managers could do just that if only they were more aware of personal tendencies that influence their decisions as well as vulnerabilities we all have that stem from the way we (that is, our brains) perceive and analyze situations and information. Cultivating this self-awareness is one of the lowest cost — but most challenging — ways I know to become a more effective decision-maker.

Perception and perspective are tricky things. Optical illusions exploit the way our brains work, causing us to misperceive objects and images. We often consider these to be tricks that aren’t very important to daily life, yet there is at least one major exception: the passenger side mirrors on our automobiles, which come with an engraved warning reminding us that “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” In addition, to use this mirror effectively a driver must be aware of the blind spot. Both the blind spot and misperceiving distance are problems because (when we are in the driver’s seat) our brains are quick to misinterpret the image in the mirror as physical reality.

In similar ways, business decisions are vulnerable to misperceptions or skewed perspectives. Vulnerabilities generally fall into two categories: those everyone shares as part of the human condition and those that are particular to an individual. As with the side mirror, being aware is a critical first step to minimizing their impact.

No one is perfect; individual inclinations and gaps sway all of us. The ability to be self-critical is key. Here are some questions intended to provoke useful self-examination:

  • Do you tend to be overly optimistic or pessimistic based on recent experience?
  • Do you defer to experts or discount their opinions completely?
  • Do you balance intuition and evidence or automatically favor one over the other?
  • Do you probe for information and knowledge or make do with whatever is available?
  • Do you actively seek alternative views or protect yourself from being challenged?
  • Do you tend to make decisions too early or delay until the situation is critical?
  • Do you fear scrutiny or embrace it?
  • Do you change your mind too easily in the face of new information or resist too much?

Individual inclinations and tendencies can and do negatively impact decision-making.  None of us can escape entirely but self-awareness can help balance and counterbalance our weaknesses while making the most of our strengths.

It is also important to factor in biases and blind spots that researchers have identified as hardwired into each of us. Though hard to counteract, there are steps that can help to manage these human factors. Robert Wolf provides an excellent starting point in his post on “How to Minimize Your Biases When Making Decisions” for the HBR Blog Network. In my consulting practice I have seen these biases reinforced or mitigated by an individual’s personality and decision-making patterns; so be mindful of their interplay.

Another human factor to consider is willful blindness. This phenomenon is not confined to business decisions but can have a devastating effect on an organization in which it occurs. Especially insidious is that blind spots render issues that require attention or decisions invisible until they become crises, sometimes presenting an existential threat to the organization or inflicting terrible harm on others. To learn more, listen to Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk on the topic or read her article on “Willful blindness: When a leader turns a blind eye” in the Ivey Business Journal online.

While the focus of this post is on individual decision makers, it applies to teams as well. Startup ventures, intrapreneurial teams, and top management at organizations (large and small) are all susceptible. As with individuals, teams have their own vulnerabilities. Teams that are comfortable with internal conflict and seek information from divergent sources may be less susceptible to willful blindness but may have difficulty absorbing the final decision when it’s time to do so. Alternatively, the danger of willful blindness or confirmation bias may increase when team members are discouraged or punished for raising important concerns or contributing information.

SWOT spotHas this post convinced you that you can become a more effective decision maker? If so, use the information here to assess your own decision-making habit and patterns. Ask people you trust to level with you about your strengths and weaknesses. When you spot an opportunity to improve yourself or your team(s), remember that change is difficult and requires persistence. Progress takes time and set backs will occur. Keep at it; there is a lot to gain.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

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