5 Tips to Overcome the Leader’s Bias

Can you guess the name of the leader described below?

  • A new chief executive, one of the youngest in his nation’s history, is being sworn into office on a cold and cloudy day in January.
  • He was raised a Catholic.
  • He rose to his new position in part because of his vibrant charisma.
  • He is revered by the people and will play a crucial role in a military crisis that will face his nation.
  • His name will become legendary.

Most Americans will conclude that the leader is John F. Kennedy before they reach the third point, and they will be “wrong”. The correct answer is Adolf Hitler according to Matthew May. (1)

Why do we get the “wrong” answer? In a word, bias. Most Americans have a picture in their mind of Kennedy on that cold Inauguration Day. Most also know that he was the first Catholic president. This sets up a shortcut in our thinking that filters out the rest of the statements to confirm our bias. How much are your biases affecting your leadership thinking?

Professors at Columbia and New York University surveyed 70 managers about sales growth, sales fluctuations, industry trends and so forth. (2) The researchers then compared the leaders’ answers with published market reports and statistics. More than half of the executives made grossly inaccurate statements about sales in their very own business units. About one third of them underestimated sales, while 25% overestimated sales. These researchers followed up with another study involving 47 senior leaders. They studied the manager’s perceptions of their company’s quality improvement programs. The accuracy of the responses by those directly managing quality programs was off by as much as 75%. They thought they monitored their environment closely, they didn’t. To paraphrase Will Rogers, what you don’t know may hurt you, but it’s what you do know that it isn’t so that’ll kill you!

Here are five practical tips to help you overcome your biases and keep you from hurting yourself:

  1. Solicit outside perspectives. It’s always best to assume you’re missing something and to ask questions about it. If you have too many yes-people around you, pay for outside perspectives (and “deselect” a few of the yes-people).


  2. Challenge the absence of disconfirming evidence. When you listen to arguments or read a report without contradicting data, watch out. That should raise a red flag. Invite others to play the devil’s advocate and argue contrary positions.

  3. Operationalize information diversity. How can you make considering numerous points of view the norm for your team? One executive I coach makes it a habit to go to the front lines and ask those who are doing the work for their input. Another has made one person responsible for assembling information from multiple sources.

  4. Applaud ignorance. Many of the meetings I used to attend as an executive involved people in the meeting trying to look good in front of each other. I can’t believe I was caught up in that silly game, but I was. The problem with trying to look good is that people think that admitting you don’t know makes you look bad. As a leader, if you start saying “I don’t know, let’s find out,” and applauding those who do, others will follow. Cultivate and celebrate truth tellers.

  5. Avoid “home on the range” meetings. I once consulted with an organization that conducted meetings where “seldom was heard a discouraging word.” They were afraid to engage in any conflict. Cognitive conflict actually improves decision-making and results. It’s emotional conflict that causes difficulty. Teach your team the difference.

Special thanks for for always providing insightful pieces for our chapter members to enjoy. The original posting, written by Dave G Jensen, can be found at: Feel free to join their website and provide comments or questions. 

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