Think about your organisation. How do you visualise it?
You’re probably thinking about a group of people categorised by the different departments they belong to.
We tend to automatically think that employees are differentiated by who they are – data scientist, CEO, sales representative and so on. But we often overlook the fact that people across departments have different roles, deal with different situations yet do similar things: socialising, interacting with managers, making sense of leadership communications, and planning for the week ahead.
Behavioural Science is the study of what people do and why they do it. Applied to an organisation, it shifts the focus from who one is at work, to what one does.
Behavioural Science can help you influence behaviour, and help people make better decisions for themselves, and for your company. This can be achieved either by taking advantage of those biases to lead people in the right direction without them necessarily realising, or by making those biases aware to people in order to fight them.
Now you may be thinking that use of Behavioural Science feels instinctively fake or manipulative. It is actually the opposite. The goal of Behavioural Science is to understand how people behave and why, in order to obtain the desired results without having to restrict people’s pool of choices. It helps take out any friction so you can get the best out of employees, by aligning processes and interventions with people’s natural tendencies, rather than going against them.
When leaders lay the right foundations, Behavioural Science can quickly make a difference that can be seen and measured.
Some examples of the biases Behavioural Science can help mitigate are:
Status quo bias
People tend to feel more regretful when bad outcomes are the result of new actions, rather than when they result from inaction. In organisations, this bias is even stronger given that consequences don’t fall just on the individual but often on the organisation at large. Preferring the known-route in both everyday and big decisions can sometimes be the right choice, but if it becomes a default based on an ingrained bias, it will lead to ignoring options that may benefit the individual and the organisation.
Behavioural Science can help counteract the effects of this bias by acting on the psychological constructs that are linked to it: loss aversion (we give more weight to potential losses than potential gains); regret avoidance (we tend to choose the status quo to avoid disappointment); the sunk cost fallacy (the more the individual/the company invested in the standard way of doing things, the harder it is to change route, even when it means more losses); the mere exposure effect (preferring things we’ve already been exposed to, no matter whether good or bad).
Behavioural Science shows that once a group starts adopting a certain opinion, it’s extremely difficult for individuals to bring in another thought or have differing opinions. This can be damaging to organisations because there is no space for debate and they can quickly become echo chambers; it can also be damaging to individuals, where over time people may feel like their opinions don’t permeate the noise and they then feel less valuable and engaged. This is the problem of groupthink.
However, by addressing and understanding this human tendency you can build processes that combat groupthink. During recruitment, for example, you can make people fill out a statement on the candidate before they enter the group discussions. There we’d say, never let the most senior person in the room speak first. Make sure that everyone notes the opinion right after having seen the recruitment candidate and before sharing their opinion. This will allow people’s true opinion to shine through without outside influence.
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes that people form outside of their own conscious awareness – and outside of choice. Everyone has these unconscious or implicit biases and it therefore seeps into almost every organisation or sector imaginable: recruitment, criminal justice, healthcare, journalism – the list goes on. While it is believed that unconscious stereotyping serves to help us group people by expected traits and navigate the world without being overwhelmed, the trouble remains that the capacity for prejudice is wired into the human brain.
If you think of our ancestors, they had to favour their own in-group and family members in order to ensure the survival of their own descendance. For evolutionary reasons, favouring strangers rather than family and people that are similar to you is completely irrational. But our context has changed drastically, and our brain didn’t have the time to keep up.
This bias is very different from explicit bias and racism, but Behavioural Science shows us that it still has to be managed in order to create fair organisations and avoid the possibility that it could turn into conscious discrimination. It gives us the tools to recognise it and understand it. Understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of innate intuition – and questioning why you hold these opinions – can help leaders draw on their expertise more effectively and avoid the affliction of unconscious bias.
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