There are many reasons why organizational change fails more than it succeeds but chances are you can trace each reason to your biases that shape and influence the choices you make along the way. And it’s not just your biases at play, it’s also the biases of your fellow leaders, employees and your customers. Managing cognitive biases is expansive and challenging, but it is also crucial if you want to navigate organizational transformations effectively and successfully.
What is a bias? It’s a prejudice, outlook or tendency rooted in an unreasoned judgement.
And we all have them, lots of them. If you disagree chances are you are exhibiting Blindspot Biaswhich is the tendency to see yourself as less biased than other people, or to be able to identify more cognitive biases in others than in yourself. There are literally dozens of scientifically recognized cognitive biases that hijack you daily. But there are a few in particular that I have witnessed the most.
A recent HBR article nicely identified two, Loss Aversion Bias and Conformity Bias. The author, Sean Ryan, nails why and how these two biases mislead your mindset and your behaviour. There are two more I would like to highlight. The first one I mentioned already, the Blindspot Bias. I recently interviewed 20 executive leaders individually within a Fortune 50 company. They were embarking on a significant transformation with regards to how they go to market. Each of them were 100% supportive of the initiative and described is as essential in order for them to compete and sustain their lead in the marketplace. But each of them expressed concerns that their peers were not ready or equipped to do what would be required of them to effectively lead this initiative because of fear of how it may effect their own business unit, yet they themselves were the exception and did not have that fear. Needless to say there was a massive Blindspot Bias at play. In this particular case this was a symptom of a bigger issue, there was a lack of candor and trust amongst them that needed to be addressed. Taking the time to discover what biases are in your way is critical in revealing the risks and issues lurking within.
Another bias that shows up a lot is the Empathy Gap Bias, which is the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either yourself or others. While we may like to believe that we have evolved past Command and Control Leadership practices to a more Servant Leadership practices we still have a ways to go. In fact most leaders are still very uncomfortable with the role of empathy in business. This gap shows up all the time with mergers and acquisitions. There is a widely practiced misguided belief that feelings belong in HR, this is a very costly false belief. The value and impact of an acquisition is completely reliant on how those experiencing the change feel, ignoring this negligent and has consequences that can be challenging to overcome.
The HBR article provides a number of good recommended actions to consider in order to mitigate the impact of your cognitive biases. I would like to expand on one of them. He recommends creating separate mental and physical spaces for your transformations spaces. Unfortunately many of you may not have the resources to do this. However, it is critical to identify what you and your organization need to unlearn. Most leaders put all the emphasis on what needs to be learned not recognizing that we often have to unlearn something in order to make room to learn a new way. A good example of this is when you automate a task or process. If you simply focus on educating your employees on the new automated way of functioning they frequently continue with many of the manual habits they are accustomed to which chips away at any efficiencies you were counting on creating with the new automated solution. In addition to unlearning, it is essential to revisit your organization’s purpose and beliefs to ensure that they show up in all of the decisions and behaviour as you navigate change.
What biases do you notice most at your organization?