Confirmation bias, why it matters, and how to avoid it.

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is when an individual interprets or accepts new information in a way that supports their original beliefs. This happens because people often unconsciously search out information or data that confirms their original and predetermined beliefs and ignore or fail to recognise information that opposes them.

‘Put simply, when we want something to be true, we will find ways of making it so’.

Why should confirmation bias be avoided?

Confirmation bias shows us that we don’t always perceive facts objectively, and instead follow our assumptions and prejudices. This can shape the way we respond to social and political issues, workplace dilemmas and challenges, and our relationships with other people. Inevitably, this creates flawed decision making, and that can have a huge impact on the workplace.

Companies and individuals that make efforts to overcome confirmation bias may find that they have happier and more collaborative teams, better working relationships and a competitive edge over businesses that those that continue to convince themselves they are heading in the right direction, without considering that they could be wrong.

How can I recognise confirmation bias?

A common example of confirmation bias in the workplace is when companies launch new products. Teams might throw themselves into market research and focus groups objectively to see if the product will succeed on the market. However, the team may also be going into the project knowing that their boss is convinced of its future popularity, and they will want it to succeed too. Team members may have a preconception that the product is great, and their confirmation bias means that they only focus on information that is positive. An individual in a focus group might have said, ‘I really like it, I would love to have one. I just couldn’t afford this sort of thing.’ Instead of drawing a conclusion that the product is too expensive or seen as an unnecessary luxury, the team may over-focus on the fact that the individual liked it.

Confirmation bias can also cause social problems within an organisation. A mother returning from maternity leave might be labelled as less dedicated too busy to handle a project. A manager might look for ways this is true, for example focusing on how she leaves on time every day, but neglect to notice that she’s working through her lunch or taking work home with her. This not only means that the individual misses out on a career opportunity (and the relationship between the two may become strained), but also means that the company misses out on the skills and ideas she could have brought to the project.

How can I overcome confirmation bias in the workplace?

Being aware of the pitfalls of confirmation bias is the first big step for any individual or organisation. Acknowledging that there is a risk that you or your colleagues may be trying to support a pre-existing belief means that you are better placed to play the devil’s advocate, ask probing questions, take a more pragmatic approach and arrive at better, more productive and competitive solutions.

‘The ability to really listen and understand beyond what is convenient for us means that coaches can be a valuable, independent asset to individuals and businesses’.

Coaches can help organisations create inclusive offices and expand thinking beyond preconceptions to unlock opportunities in areas never previously considered. An independent perspective such as a coach may be able to better analyse the company culture and target areas that are most at risk from confirmation bias, creating action plans that get to the heart of the issue, teaching people how to think more critically, question more effectively and get better results.

Contact me to find out how my coaching services can empower your teams to think differently.


© 2024 Maxine Ward All rights reserved