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Watch for the negative impact of self-serving bias in decision-making

positive_negativeThe self-serving bias is a concept that has been extensively studied in social psychology.  Essentially, it is people’s tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors. It’s a common type of cognitive bias that exists in all aspects of life, including in the workplace.

For example, a salesperson who attributes a significant sale to his own business insight and relationship-building skills, but attributes a loss of a sale to the customer’s lack of acumen or the competitor’s unfair advantage may be exhibiting the self-serving bias. Similarly, a leader’s inclination to take credit for the team’s success, but to blame individual team members for mistakes or missteps is another common example of self-serving bias.

The self-serving bias can negatively impact decision-making

The problem of course with the self-serving bias is that it can negatively affect organizational decision-making.  For example, the self-serving bias can cause teams to evaluate project failures by attributing shortcomings solely to external factors beyond the team’s control, instead of accepting at least some degree of personal responsibility.  Or it can cause people to ignore risks arising from internal shortcomings while exaggerating the impact of risks resulting from external situational factors.  In negotiations, it can create a greater likelihood of an impasse because each party tends to overvalue arguments in its own favour, while undervaluing the viewpoints of the other party.  The self-serving bias can also make people in organizations less likely to acknowledge internal security threats, thus creating computer systems that are better defended against external threats than they are against hazards from within.

But here’s how you can counteract the self-serving bias

All to say that it is important for leaders to counteract the effects of the self-serving bias.  This can be done in at least two ways.

  1. Simply by being aware about the self-serving bias, you can watch for it and self-correct.
  2. Deliberately focus on contra-biasing – make a list of the ways that your own actions have or could contribute to the depressed performance and another list of the ways in which others actions have or could contribute towards enhanced performance.

So these are my two ideas.  What are yours?  Have you noticed examples of self-serving bias that have negatively impacted decision-making in your organization?  What (if anything) are you doing to counteract it?  Please share by commenting below.

P.S. I often blog about approaches and techniques leaders can use to improve their decision-making skills, including a short series a couple of years ago.

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