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How to handle decision making in the management teams? In many companies’ management and leadership processes seem to work well, but suddenly something surprising happens. In spite of many cross-checks and meetings, things turn into a non-expected direction. All think that everything was in place … but then something emerges and business plans are outdated in a day. Why this happens?

It is typical than there are always some biases in management teams of companies. It is typical that for individuals it is not easy to make question marks on official agreements and strategies. Even though all nod in agreement and look happy it is not easy to say something critical. “It was settled” or “we all agreed” are typical notes on the memos of companies in this kind of decision situations.

Raising dissenting voice is not easy – especially when the chief boss decides something. It is much easier to be among “yes-sayers” than among “critical questioning men”. Self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency to engage in behaviors that elicit results that will (consciously or subconsciously) confirm our beliefs. “Yes men” cause self-fulfilling prophecies. There can be also a halo effect, the tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one area of their personality to another in others’ perceptions of them.

In many case studies of management processes, some typical mistakes have been identified. First, there is tendency to devote attention only to those events seen as most likely. Secondly, once the team of decision makers had made up its mind as to what was going to happen, even conclusive information that the decision was poor did not change the prediction and associated decision. Thus there is typically a problem of groupthink in management teams. One reason for this problem is homogenous social and cultural backgrounds.

Often management teams have similar backgrounds: university degree holders, men with similar hobbies, career paths, middle-class people, and homogenous values. False consensus effect means the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them. Sometimes there can be anchoring decision-making biases, where there is the tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.

Another problematic issue in management teams is overcoming overconfidence. The future looks assured for them. Their judgments are made with deep confidence. However, people may feel confident that they do know the right answer but actually don´t. They don´t know they don´t know. Other options of knowing are: (1) They do know they know; (2) they don´t know they do know and (3) they do know they don´t know. Obviously the best option would be to know that they know. In reality this option is not often available for a management team.

Third typical bias of a management team is a confirmation bias. What it means? It means that we don´t place ourselves in situations where we can test the quality of our judgment. We want to seek that information that will confirm the quality of our predictions and decisions. It is quite human character of people, wanting to be in right – winning team. In this way we are selective in our observations.

Fourth bias in management teams, is so called hindsight bias, which is connected to our readiness not learn from experiences. In general, we don´t learn from experience because experience has little to teach us. That is why our recollections of our judgmental predictions confirm these to have been accurate. Some call this bias “I-know-it-all-along-effect”. Thus, our judgments are rooted to history and it cause biases to emerge.

Fifth bias can emerge because we rely on expert predictions too much. We can call this bias as an expert bias. Also experts can cause group thinking bias and other people may suffer from this kind of bias. There are many other kinds of biases, too like randomness bias, sunk-cost bias, self-serving bias and escalation and commitment bias. Projection bias is close expert opinion bias. It is the tendency to unconsciously assume that others share the same or similar thoughts, beliefs, values, or positions.

Sixth bias, randomness bias means that there is a tendency people have to seek patterns where none exist and to invent the existence of unjustified causal relationships. It is the tendency of people to make sense out of events which are so random in nature that not enough should be read into them. Close to randomness bias is Gambler´s fallacy, the tendency to assume that individual random events are influenced by previous random events.

Seventh type of bias, sunk-cost bias is often connected to too optimistic thinking. Sunk-costs are costs that cannot be recovered once they have been incurred. Sunk-costs bias greatly affects the decisions, because humans are inherently loss aversive and thus normally act irrationally when making economic decisions.

Eight type of bias, self-serving bias occurs when people attribute their successes to internal or personal factors but attribute their failures to situational factors beyond their control. The term, “self-serving bias”, is used to describe a pattern of biased causal inference, in which praise or blame depend on whether success or failure was achieved in reality.

Ninth type bias, escalation and commitment bias means tendency to invest additional resources in an apparently losing proposition, influenced by effort, money, and time already invested. The term is also used to describe poor decision-making in business, government, information systems in general. Escalations and commitment biases are typical in software project management, in politics, and in addictive gambling. To sum up: there are 9 key sources of bias in management teams:

• Overcoming overconfidence;
• Group thinking bias;
• Confirmation bias;
• Hindsight bias;
• Expert opinion bias;
• Randomness bias;
• Sunk-cost bias;
• Self-serving bias and
• Escalation and commitment bias.

It is good to be aware of these potential decision making biases in decision making situations. We could avoid these typical biases, if we were aware of these potential biases. The lessons from history can tell us that many management teams do not identify these biases and serious management failures happen. A sad truth is that we don’t always learn from experiences. There are very many historical lessons available for decision makers but we should learn something from these old lessons. From this perspective “learning organization” is a modern myth.

There is need to question some issues (and biases) in many management teams. That why bohemian persons and “out of box” thinkers may be very valuable members in management teams. It is easy to say that we should be free of biases, but in reality we are often slaves of biases and fallacies. Only personal and critical reflections can help us to be free from these biases. Open and critical discussions in management teams should be encouraged and supported too. Daily illusions about effective control should be avoided in all the decision-making situations and processes.

Further reading

Wright, George (2001) Strategic Decision Making. A Best Practice Blueprint. John Chichester: Wiley & Sons.
Goup 3: Bhavesh, Brunica, Deepak, Kane, Kiran, Lisette & Monica (2012) Biases in Decision-making. Web: http://www.scribd.com/doc/21613064/Biases-in-decision-making
Scribd, “gaea_myzticmoon” (2012) Biases. Web: http://www.scribd.com/doc/73002909/Biases

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