Root Out Bias from Your Decision-Making Process

Thomas C. Redman


We’ve all experienced the disappointment of an important decision not going our way. The feeling is far worse when you feel that the decision was somehow “rigged” against you — that you never had a chance, that your input wasn’t given its fair due, or that only some of the data was considered. You can accept a fair decision that goes the other way, but a rigged decision feels much worse. And the ill will festers.

Poor decision making happens in our business, civic, and personal lives. But often we are perpetrators, participating in or making rigged decisions, even if we may not realize it.

Rigged decisions are all too frequent, and while they come in many forms, the most virulent feature the following steps:

  1. Make the decision based on some or all of the following: ego, ideology, experience, fear, or consultation with like-minded advisers.
  2. Find data that justifies your decision.
  3. Announce and execute the decision, and defend it to the minimum degree necessary.
  4. Take credit if the decision proves beneficial, and assign blame if not.

Let’s start with the first step: Make the decision. Anyone who is familiar with the scientific method (or has served on a jury) knows that it is wrong to “make the decision” ahead of assembling the relevant facts. You must have a full view of the situation before making a choice. So why do so many people work the other way around?

Making good decisions involves hard work. Important decisions are made in the face of great uncertainty, and often under time pressure. The world is a complex place: People and organizations respond to any decision, working together or against one another, in ways that defy comprehension. There are too many factors to consider. There is rarely an abundance of relevant, trusted data that bears directly on the matter at hand. Quite the contrary — there are plenty of partially relevant facts from disparate sources — some of which can be trusted, some not — pointing in different directions.

With this backdrop, it is easy to see how one can fall into the trap of making the decision first and then finding the data to back it up later. It is so much faster. But faster is not the same as well-thought-out. Before you jump to a decision, you should ask yourself, “Should someone else who has time to assemble a complete picture make this decision?” If so, you should assign the decision to that person or team.

This can be challenging for executives who’ve created environments in which decisions are required to go through the highest level. I once worked with an organization of about 1,500 people in which a senior VP had to approve orders for copier paper! If this is how your organization works, consider whether there are ways to create an environment in which proper decision making can happen at lower levels. Doing so will free up your time for more-important decisions and improve the overall capability of your entire organization.

Next, ask yourself, “Do I really have a broad enough perspective to make and defend this decision?” It appears to me that the reason so many decision makers take step 2 (seeking data to justify an already-made decision) is they sense that the answer is “no,” even if they can’t articulate why.

This route is common both in business and in the world at large — so much so that TV personality Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to mean, roughly, one’s preference for concepts or facts one wishes to be true. There has always been plenty of data to support whatever decision one wants to make. And doing so has grown progressively easier with the rise of the internet and social media. It is all too easy to fall victim to confirmation bias, where one pays attention to data that supports a decision and dismisses data that does not.

How can you avoid this trap? The first part of the answer lies in simply admitting your lack of confidence in instincts alone. None of us likes to admit we’re biased — after all, the word carries negative connotations. But the best decision makers I know freely admit their preconceptions. What values or beliefs may be coloring your thinking? Taking a hard look in the mirror forces you to acknowledge other perspectives, softens your decision, and helps you seek a broader view.

The second part asks you go against your inclinations: What would happen if you decided to move forward in the opposite direction of what you originally chose? Gather the data you would need to defend this opposite view, and compare it to the data used to support your original decision. Reevaluate your decision in light of the bigger data set. Your perspective still may not be complete, but it will be much more balanced.

Finally, before you commit to announcing, executing, and defending your choice, try out your decision on a “friendly” or two. A friendly is someone who is on your side and wants you to succeed. Here, I’m referring to someone who wants to protect you and has the courage to honestly tell you when your thinking is incomplete, when you’ve missed something important, and when you’re just plain wrong. If a friendly advises any of these things, start anew, rethinking your decision and the data you need to make it.

Few people set out to make a rigged decision, but when you’re pressured to make a choice fast, you may fall victim to a flawed process. By asking yourself tough questions, getting the right people involved, admitting your own preconceptions, and subjecting your thinking to someone who will really challenge it, you can expose a poor decision-making process and help correct it.