As humans, we tend to interpret information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs and serves our own self-interest. In situations that lack clarity, we often make assumptions that serve to bolster our egos and self-esteem. We selectively interpret information to support our own position, and overlook or dismiss information that contradicts our views. This is known as the self-serving bias, and it can lead to suboptimal decision-making or even contribute to conflict, as we become more entrenched in our own positions and less willing to consider alternative perspectives. The author offers three strategies to help you combat this bias: 1) Consider the source of the information you’re relying on; 2) Think counterfactually about previous decisions you’ve made; and 3) Seek out information that challenges your assumptions.
A few years ago, I advised a sales team whose job involved making cold calls. The team members would often attribute successful sales to their own skill and expertise, while blaming external factors like poor leads or bad timing for any failures. This is just one of many examples I can think of from my experience working with leaders across organizations and industries that illustrates a common human bias.
Self-serving bias is the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs and serves our own self-interest. In situations that lack clarity, we often make assumptions that serve to bolster our egos and self-esteem. We selectively interpret information to support our own position, and overlook or dismiss information that contradicts our views. In fact, in the above example, a look at the data revealed that the team’s conversion rate was much lower than the team expected. When presented with this data, some team members were defensive and reluctant to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
The self-serving bias can lead to suboptimal decision-making or even contribute to conflict, as we become more entrenched in our own positions and less willing to consider alternative perspectives. This, in turn, can make it difficult to collaborate on solutions to complex problems.
Here’s how to combat the self-serving bias — and reach better, longer-lasting decisions:
Consider the source of the information you’re relying on.
Doing this will likely lead you to reexamine the data you rely on to make your decisions. As I wrote in my book Sidetracked, I once worked with a chain of retail stores that was trying to motivate their employees. Puzzled after a few unsuccessful attempts, they finally saw promising results when they introduced clear performance guidelines, sales targets, and monthly bonuses. Productivity shot up, most employees met their targets, and managers began using these positive results in the employees’ performance evaluations.
However, upon closer examination, company management noticed a disturbing trend. Employees were achieving their sales targets primarily in the last week of each month, and there was a spike in returned merchandise the week after the bonus was paid out. In essence, motivated by the new guidelines, workers were buying merchandise in bulk toward the end of the month to meet their targets and returning it shortly after receiving their bonus. Managers were evaluating their employees based on incomplete information about their behavior and performance.
By considering the source of the information you’re relying on, you can become more confident that in deciding on next steps, you’re using relevant information to weigh others’ thinking and actions, as well as your own.
Think counterfactually about previous decisions you’ve made.
Counterfactual thinking invites you to consider different courses of action you could have taken to gain a better understanding of the factors that influenced your choice. For example, if you missed a big deadline on a work project, you might reflect on how working harder, asking for help, or renegotiating the deadline could have affected the outcome. This reflection can help you recognize which factors played a significant role in your decision-making process — for example, valuing getting the project done on your own versus getting it done on time — and identify changes you might want to make when it comes to future decisions.
The 1998 movie Sliding Doors offers a great example of how counterfactual thinking can help us understand the forces that shape our decisions. The film explores two alternate storylines for the main character, Helen (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), based on whether she catches an upcoming subway train or misses it. While watching both storylines unfold, we gain insight into different factors that influence Helen’s life choices.
Similarly, engaging in counterfactual thinking can help you think through choices you’ve made by helping you expand your focus to consider multiple frames of reference beyond the present outcome. This type of reflection encourages you to take note of different perspectives and reach a more balanced view of your choices. By thinking counterfactually, you can ensure you are looking at existing data in a more unbiased way.
Challenge your assumptions.
You can also fight self-serving biases by actively seeking out information that challenges your beliefs and assumptions. This can be uncomfortable, as it could threaten your identity and worldview, but it’s a key step in developing a more nuanced and informed perspective.
One way to do this is to purposely expose yourself to different perspectives in order to broaden your understanding of an issue. Take Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. When he assumed the role in 2014, he recognized that the company’s focus on Windows and Office was limiting its growth potential. Not only did the company need a new strategy, he recognized that the culture needed to evolve as well.
In order to expand the company’s horizons, Nadella sought out talent from different backgrounds and industries, who brought with them a diverse range of perspectives. He also encouraged Microsoft employees to experiment and take risks, even if it meant failing along the way. By purposefully exposing himself and his team to different perspectives and new ideas, Nadella was able to transform Microsoft into a more innovative and customer-focused company, with a renewed focus on cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
Research has found that people who actively seek out information that challenges their preconceptions are better able to update their beliefs in response to new evidence. By actively seeking out diverse perspectives and evidence, you can overcome the limitations of self-serving biases and make more informed decisions.
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Falling prey to self-serving biases only means we are human beings. Overcoming such biases in our work and life is not only critical to achieving better decisions — it’s also very possible. We can make better, more informed decisions — and unlock our full potential at work and beyond — if we make a regular habit of the above three strategies.