Free Of Bias

Free Of Bias

Biases are pervasive and difficult to recognise, far less cure. But a sincere effort and openness to identify and address biases improve the quality of individual and organisational decision-making.


Last time in this column (A Bias for Understanding), we spoke about different kinds of biases we suffer from and are often unable to realise that we are subject to them. Well, today, let us see what can be done about recognising our biases and addressing them.


In 1974, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky published an academic paper titled ‘Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’. Despite the article’s very academic-sounding title, Kahneman and Tversky essentially launched a new field with its publication - The Study Of Cognitive Biases. With a series of experiments, they uncovered many problems with human decision-making. Biases such as the Confirmation Bias are a common occurrence, but, what can we do about them? Well, let us explore some ways to go about this.


For starters, the fundamental impulse should be an openness to improve our decision-making capabilities by being open to changing the way we think. And, this conviction should include being open to accepting errors in our most treasured perspectives. Sometimes, this is difficult to do but is essential.


Au Contraire


If we wish to break our biases, then it is important to listen to the critics of our decisions, be they the devil’s advocate or just someone who is a natural doubter and tends to be critical of things around. Such critics help provide a counterpoint that often exposes the limitations of our decisions.


Data Talk


Angel investor and writer, Gokul Rajaram, has devised a framework called SPADE to address our biases. Talk of calling a spade, a spade! The SPADE framework stands for:


- S is for Setting: Precisely define the What, develop a timeframe and identify the ‘why’ 


- P is for People: The first thing to do is to identify the people who should consult and identify a single person who is Responsible (similar to the RACI matrix)


-A is for Alternative: As the decision-maker, it is your responsibility to find feasible and diverse alternatives. Most importantly, gather critical stakeholders and brainstorm possible alternatives.


- D is for Decide: Rajaram suggests here that you can take inputs from others. But preferably, it should be done one-to-one, and not in a collective. In the latter situation, the chances of Groupthink taking over are high.


- E is for Explain: The final step is to explain the decision via a committee meeting. This could be followed by steps on delegation and execution.


Devil’s Advocate


Once we decide on a position, we take a dismissive or a combative view of other perspectives. However, if the decision-making quality is to improve, then we genuinely need to understand where our detractors are coming from. And all detractor views should be discounted only after they have been evaluated and cross-examined. We could even collect data around the detractor’s perspective, to see if it holds.


Look Back


History is a great teacher. Historical data and insights provide great insights and help decisions. For example, decisions to purchase equities are preceded by a view to the value of the scrip across the last 52 weeks, if not more. As they say, those who ignore the past are forced to re-live it. Ignore the past at your own peril!


Many Views, Many Paths


The mystic Saint Sri Rama Krishna Paramahamsa did not automatically believe in the truth of any particular spiritual practice till he had himself experienced it. He felt there are as many paths as perspectives. The Mughal ruler Akbar too invited practitioners from many religions to his Court and patiently heard their views. However, the risk we run is having too many inputs and that can get derailed from the basic purpose of deciding. Hence, it is also important to draw a line and post that quickly close in and a chosen path of action.


The Role of Diversity and Inclusion


A very serious problem with biases is that often they are unconscious. This is where diversity helps. It is often said about traditional US companies that they are run by old, white men. This relative homogeneity has often been blamed for poor performance by some organisations. People who are similar in their beliefs and culture can altogether miss out on things that may be obvious to people from different backgrounds. Therefore, it is important to ensure that there is a diversity of perspectives.


A Bias-Free Process


While individuals break free from biases, we need to ensure processes are put in place to check and address biases proactively. Stakeholders should dispassionately see where biases are most common and adversely impacting the organisation. How does the organisational governance take place, what are the review mechanisms in place, how are hiring, promotions, financial decisions, etc. being made in the organisation?


These decisions are made at many levels and it is important to have organisational checks in place to pre-empt biases running rampant in the organisation. For example, every Recruiter in the company should be familiarised with common biases such as the Horn and Halo Effect. A full-fledged Learning and Certification programme can be of great help.


Role of Employees


Employees have a key role to play in ensuring decisions that are fairly objective. Employees should be held accountable if they are showing biases that derail organisational decisionmaking. At times, biases occur at the senior-most echelons and is difficult to address them. It is here that the culture of speaking the truth to power comes into play along with systematic checks such as a robust grievance redress process, an Ombudsperson, a whistle blower policy, etc. But, biases at any level need to be identified and neutralised to ensure healthy decision making.

Dipankar Das is the author of Cracking the CSAT Code at the Call Centre. He has worked in diverse organisations, including Genpact, Concentrix and for the Tatas. He is currently Sr VP and Global Head of Skill Development at iSON Experiences.


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