9 Cognitive Biases That Affect Your Leadership

Have you ever thought of yourself as an unfair or a biased leader? 

Most people would have said “no”. A lot of people actually consider themselves as fair and reasonable leaders. Yet, we all have to admit that it is hard to see things objectively, especially when our beliefs and perspectives are so deeply ingrained.

Whether we accept it or not, we all have our biases –  even the best leaders. These biases are essentially attitudes or stereotypes accumulated throughout your life that can influence the way you make decisions, the way you deal with conflict, interact with people, and so on. These biases often lead to unfair assessments based on faulty rationale. 

As humans, we are programmed to respond positively to those whom we perceive to be similar to us and negatively (consciously or unconsciously) to those whom we perceive to be too different to “fit in” with our group.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, discovered that the majority of human decisions are not based on facts or logic. They are instead based on prejudices, beliefs, and intuition.

It is fully possible that we are biased in some ways – we are just unaware of it. However, it is important that leaders take the necessary steps to recognize these biases and manage them with courage and consistency so that they can lead effectively. 

The Impact Of Cognitive Biases. 

According to a Harvard University researcher, no matter how much we want ourselves to be unbiased and fair, most of us will fall short of our (most likely inflated) self-perception. This also applies to leaders. 

Cognitive bias is a form of unconscious bias in which leaders categorize, compare, and make assumptions that reinforce their own—often unintentional—favoritisms, preconceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes, as well as common stereotypes.

Your cognitive biases affect your decision-making process in a number of different ways. 

  • Your perception: how you perceive people and reality.
  • Your attitude: what kind of actions you choose to take while interacting with certain people.
  • Your attention: which aspects of a person you pay the most attention to.
  • Your listening: how much you actively listen to what certain people say.
  • Your micro-affirmations: how much or how little you give the effort to comfort people in certain situations.

9 Cognitive Biases To Look Out For

The first step towards managing your biases is to increase your awareness. Stop letting these cognitive biases hinder you from effective decision-making and leadership.

  1. Affinity Bias.

Have you ever hired a person because you went to the same university or have shared interests? We often unknowingly favor individuals with similar background, interests, and values and distrust those with whom we have little in common with. This bias usually manifests itself during the hiring process and major projects. 

When we have an affinity towards a person, we might be more likely to write off their mistakes or make excuses for them, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Whereas when dealing with someone that you share little affinity with, you will be less likely to give them more chances and will judge them more harshly. The affinity bias is more prevalent than you might think and can negatively impact workplace inclusion and diversity hiring initiatives.

  1. The Bandwagon Effect.

It is always easier to “go with the flow” than to go against it. As more people believe in one specific thing, other people have the tendency to also “hop on the bandwagon” regardless of the underlying evidence or even their own beliefs. This effect is also referred to as the “herd mentality” or “groupthink”. 

In a professional context, bandwagoning often happens when a person refuses to express their opinion on a certain issue because it goes against the majority. In the end, the whole group will likely miss out on an idea worth exploring. This is not just a leadership bias, it is widespread throughout the organization’s staff. 

  1. Confirmation Bias.

Admit it, everyone wants to be right and we are constantly seeking validation that we are, in fact, right. So we all have that little tendency to pay more attention to information that confirms and reinforces our existing beliefs and perspectives compared to opposing views. 

We sometimes even go as far as avoiding the evidence that we are wrong. People do this because it makes decision-making easier by limiting and focusing on existing opinions that we already believe in. Furthermore, it boosts our self-esteem to be right. Tread carefully, because this bias can hinder you from being fully rational while making decisions.

  1. Outcome Bias.

Some people have the tendency to judge the quality of a decision based on how things turned out in the past, rather than analyzing the factors that led to the decision. Although simpler, placing more weight on the outcome rather than on the process and all of the factors involved is unwise. 

For example, a leader makes a decision based on his gut feeling, going against the advice of his team. If the outcome turns out positive, he will consider the decision and process to be a good one. Despite the likelihood  that this is a one-time occurrence and they will yield a better result if the leader followed the team’s advice. 

  1. Fundamental Attribution Error.

When it comes to making judgments, it is easy to forget that there are a lot of different factors that contribute to that situation. The fundamental attribution error describes how, when making judgments about an individual’s behavior, we tend to assume that a person’s actions reflect who they are as an individual without taking in the context or contributing factors. 

In a work context, when an employee comes late to a meeting, we consider them as someone irresponsible and will always be tardy. In reality, they can be a hard worker who just happened to have a personal issue which then caused them to be late.

In reality, they are hard workers who just happened to have a personal crisis. Which caused them to be late. 

  1. Proximity Bias.

When leaders give preferential treatment to those who are physically closest to them, proximity bias occurs; this is especially prevalent in hybrid workplaces where some employees are office-based and others are remote. 

Remote workers frequently feel “out of sight, out of mind” because they are passed over for projects and promotions in favor of their coworkers who are in the office more often. Or for those who often socialize after hours with their managers, making them more likely to be chosen. 

  1. The Halo Effect.

The halo effect happens when your positive impression of certain individuals, brands, or products in one area is also positively affecting your feelings in other areas–even when there is no relation between the two. 

One example is that leaders may have a positive judgment on an employee’s performance not based on their merit, but due to the individual’s likable personality. This is also related to “beauty privilege”, where people who are considered attractive are more likely to be hired and trusted to do their job well or have a good personality. 

  1. Recency Bias.

It is common in the workplace that busy leaders tend to gauge an employee’s performance based on the most recent experience with the employee. The recency effect is due to our memory being affected by the position of information in a sequence or a list. Making us remember the first and last items in a series while harder to remember the middle items. This effect is especially prominent on larger teams and remote teams. 

  1. The Dunning Kruger Effect.

Have you ever heard of this quote by Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know”? This quote is related to this particular bias. In short, the Dunning Kruger effect is the tendency to believe that you know something, while in fact, you do not. 

This effect occurs when a person is lacking in capabilities or knowledge of a certain area, causing them to overestimate their own competence. This happens because they do not have the skills and awareness to assess their own incompetence. 

In contrast, people who are knowledgeable tend to be more humble and open minded. They will try their best to see from different perspectives and have the humility to admit that the things they believe in might turn out to be wrong. 

Related read: 9 Leadership Myths (Debunked)

Leaders, check yourself and be aware of your own cognitive biases. 

Although the human brain is wired for cognitive biases, you should not just give in to it. Leaders who recognize their own biases are able to continually self-evaluate, examine data, seek second opinions, and utilize collective intelligence to combat bias and make better decisions. 

All in all, by being more aware of your biases, it will make you an even better leader, decision-maker, and person. One of the best ways is to get a sanity check from your stakeholders through regular feedback (or feedforward) or reach out to a coach who can help you identify your biases. 

Here at Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching®, we help leaders improve their leadership effectiveness with the world-renowned SCC methodology. 

Designed by the world’s #1 leadership thinker, Marshall Goldsmith, this quantifiable coaching process can help you attain sustainable behavioral change and improved leadership effectiveness. 

Get the details on our program by downloading our brochure here, or get in touch with our program advisor—they will be happy to answer any questions you might have about the program. 



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