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Stephanie Evans Is unconscious bias killing your meetings?

Are the people attending your meetings reaching objective decisions?

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No, they probably aren’t. People’s previous experiences and opinions play a huge role in decision making, meaning that many meeting attendees decide issues based on cognitive bias rather than facts. This makes some meetings a waste of time!

Fortunately, however, as one historical figure once said: [1]

“A bias recognized is a bias sterilized.”

In other words, understand cognitive bias and you can minimise its effects. Let’s get started!

Recognising Cognitive Bias

Cognitive bias is a distortion in decision making, reasoning, or evaluating which happens when we rely on our preferences and beliefs, even when we hear information which challenges them.

Sounds terrible, right? In reality, most people will be guilty of cognitive bias now and again, and we almost never realise it’s happening. For example, confirmation bias is a cognitive bias which can cause us to favour an opinion which support our pre-existing ideas. You’ve probably witnessed a conversation like this before:


Amir      “I read a newspaper article this morning that said the ROI on learning and development is often over 200%, and I wonder if we should increase our L&D spending. What does anyone else think?”
 Erin   “If that is true, then it suggests that L&D would be a very worthwhile investment, but I’d need to double check the validity of those findings.”
Dave “That sounds right, I’ve always thought L&D was really important. Let’s increase our spend.”


Whilst Erin has given a reasoned and impartial response, Dave has fallen victim of confirmation bias! He doesn’t know the facts of the article in question, but has still decided to trust it because it supports his opinion.The bad news is that there are over 150 types of cognitive bias, and all of them could be affecting your meeting’s attendees!

As such, overcoming cognitive bias in meetings is challenging, but attempting to do so will lead participants toward more rational and objective decision making.

‘Sterilising’ Cognitive Bias

Now that we have a better understanding of what cognitive bias is, we can plan ways to minimise its effect on your meetings. Don’t panic though, I’m not going to list all 150 types of cognitive bias! Rather, I’ve targeted three key biases: 


Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias occurs when somebody automatically favours an option which supports pre-existing ideas and rejects alternatives which go against them. At it’s worse, this can lead to decisions being influenced by longstanding prejudices!


Sarah is a manager who is chairing a meeting on team coordination. She is also a keen netball player and believes that netball players have fantastic team skills. James also plays netball, and during the meeting Sarah supports his proposal despite a number of reasoned objections from other attendees. They are extremely frustrated as they are convinced that Sarah is only supporting James because of her beliefs about netball players.


Invite diverse attendees! If your meeting contains people with a wide variety of viewpoints and experience, along with the confidence to assert and discuss these, you’re already in-route to reaching a balanced decision.


Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias occurs when meeting attendees rely on the first piece of information they are given and then use this to 'lock down' subsequent decisions. This prevents people from being able to make reasoned and rational opinions on subsequent information.


A meeting has been called to discuss a failing project. Despite the project being handled by inexperienced staff, the chairperson begins by stating:

“Project A is fundamentally unsustainable because it is so unprofitable, this meeting will decide the best way to end the project.”

An attendee subsequently explains that the project could be saved by new leadership. Unfortunately, attendees demonstrate anchoring bias by rejecting this idea without considering it. After all, it doesn’t fit with their anchor!


Knowledge beats anchors! As such, equip your attendees with the maximum available information about topics before your meeting. This will prevent them accepting the first piece of information which they are given as an anchor, and liberate them to make more informed decisions.


Bandwagon Bias

Bandwagon bias occurs when meeting participants agree with a group consensus rather than trusting and defending their own opinions. Instead, they may ‘jump on the bandwagon’.


Amir is in a meeting with nine other people, deciding whether to spend more on L&D or not. Amir thinks yes, but because everyone else votes no, he changes his answer. After all, he was clearly in the wrong! Amir is guilty of bandwagon bias, as his answer was no less valid than anyone else’s!


One fantastic technique for defeating bandwagon bias is to get meeting attendees to write down their opinions and send them to you, prior to attending. This gives you a great idea of everyone’s true opinions! It’s also vital to keep meeting numbers as low as possible, eliminating the chance of a huge consensus.

Bias Mirror (1)

Now do it for real

It takes practice to recognise when unconscious bias is affecting your behaviour, and even more to successfully tackle that bias. The good news is that we have created a free tool called The Unconscious Bias Mirror to help you. Use this tool on an ongoing basis to record the effects of bias on your meetings and develop increasingly effective methods for overcoming this.

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More great guidance on improving the output of your meetings is available in Bray Leino Learning’s free Webinar

Please also get in touch about your challenges in overcoming your staff’s cognitive biases!

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Stephanie Evans, Coaching and Mentoring Consultant, Bray Leino Learning

Want more hints and tips about effective meetings? Why not check out my Webinar 'The Secrets to Effective Meetings'. 

Want more tips and ideas on effective meetings? I am presenting a live webinar on 8th December called ‘The Secrets to Effective Meetings’. To find out more and register for the webinar, click here now - See more at: /blog/2016/november/23/how-to-be-a-great-meeting-participant/#sthash.KOcvvsGe.dpuf

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