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Confirmation Bias: How it Hurts Your Organization

Imagine a person who had been told his entire life that those who drive red cars are the worst drivers.  As he drives, he sees many types of cars and drivers.  Even as he observes cars of all colors speeding, running stop signs, and failing to yield, he likely focuses on the drivers of the red cars.  Experts call the tendency to focus on facts that support your existing beliefs confirmation bias.  This post will define confirmation bias and explain how it can keep your organization from achieving its equity, diversity, and inclusion goals.

 Experts call the tendency to focus on facts that support your existing beliefs confirmation bias. Confirmation bias can keep your organization from achieving its equity, diversity, and inclusion goals Click To Tweet

What is Confirmation Bias?

Though “bias” is in the term, confirmation bias does not directly involve bias against people.  Rather, it refers to a person’s bias against – or towards – certain facts and information.   

According to Howard J. Ross, author of Everyday Bias, confirmation bias is “the tendency for people to gather information or respond to a circumstance in a way that confirms already established beliefs.”  In other words, when we act with confirmation bias, we accept information that confirms what we believe and reject information that conflicts with our established beliefs.  Some experts call confirmation bias “wishful thinking” because people prefer facts that prove what they wish to be true.

Looking for information that confirms what we believe is a natural human tendency.   Nevertheless, in some circumstances, confirmation bias can harm people and organizations. Therefore, leaders must learn to identify confirmation biases and successfully limit them.

How Confirmation Bias Harms an Organization

As stated, humans possess a natural desire to find facts that support our beliefs.  At times, this tendency is harmless.  However,when we refuse to believe information that conflicts with our own prejudices about other people, we do great harm.  So, while believing that those who own red cars are poor drivers is harmless, believing that those of a particular race or gender behave in a criminal, reckless, or less intelligent way causes great social damage.

While confirmation biases can cause harm anywhere, they cause many workplace conflicts.   A supervisor may be reluctant to hire African Americans due to his own implicit biases.  If he hires an African American who performs poorly, that would confirm his beliefs.  Worse, he might allow this experience to justify his refusal to hire other African Americans.  Ironically, because of the way confirmation bias works, hiring a successful African American employee could have the same result.  In order to justify a continued refusal to hire African American employees, the supervisor would need to believe that his hire was “one of the good ones.”  In other words, where confirmation bias exists, there may be exceptions to the rules, but the rules themselves remain unchanged.

Confirmation bias can appear in other areas as well, especially employee reviews.  According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, confirmation bias often causes bosses to give female employees worse reviews than their male peers.   The article noted that the subjective nature of reviews allows confirmation biases to slip into the process and double standards to flourish.  In the research, bosses used negative terms to describe women, but used positive language to describe the same behavior in men.  In other words, when the supervisors evaluated the women, they only saw what they wanted to see.

Limiting Confirmation Bias

Though confirmation bias can cause problems, it can be addressed.  The optical illusion above illustrates this nicely.  When some people look at it, they see a young woman in a hat.  Others see an aged woman in scarf.   Though most people believe their interpretation of the picture is “correct,” changing the way you view the picture changes what is seen.  The same is true for confirmation bias.  As we change how we see, we change what we see.  

The first step toward limiting confirmation bias is recognizing it when and where it occurs.  Leaders should ask their teams to consider how confirmation bias may be impacting their thinking.  Only then can they can begin to address it.

Once the problem is acknowledged, the team can take steps to limit the impact of cognitive bias.  Though there are a number of ways to address confirmation bias, challenging and changing your information sources is a good place to start.  Once trusted sources are found, readers should test their biases by asking questions such as: Did you readily agree with the information?  Did you agree because it confirmed your prejudices or for other reasons?  How did you respond to the parts that did not support your beliefs?  While these steps cannot wholly eliminate confirmation bias, they can limit its impact.

Any organization committed to moving toward equity, diversity, and inclusion must first move beyond confirmation bias.  If your organization needs training on recognizing and limiting cognitive bias, please consider enrolling in The Equity Toolkit.  This progressive set of tools will equip your workforce with the skills and strategies needed to be effective in an increasingly diverse world.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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