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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Obvious and hidden distractors

You probably know what distracts your from your present task, or so you think. You likely realize that your unfinished projects, this dreaded report, another confrontation with teen behavior, concerns about your elderly parents, and that long procrastinated feedback to your direct report is distracting you from the conversation at hand.

So far so good, but do you realize that the more lethal distractions are the ones you are little aware off and that you mistakenly belief to not suffer from – not you! We like to think we’re objective and logical when we judge people and when we make decisions. We like to think we’re capable of seeking out, taking in, and correctly evaluating all the necessary information.

Harsh truth: Reality is different, very different! Your and my judgments and decisions are influenced by a wide variety of cognitive biases. By that I mean a wide variety of errors in thinking that occur when you seek out, process, and interpret information. This often serves a positive purpose: simplifying all the information that needs to be processed. However, this process of simplification can go awry. If it does, it will blind you for information and interpretations that could be valid and useful but that you are not considering. Cognitive biases are caused by different dynamics, such as social pressure including colleagues applying office politics, or by individual motivations and preferences, by emotions that originate in previous experiences, and by mental shortcuts that help you be more efficient and reach decisions more quickly – something we psychologists call adaptive purpose. So it’s not all bad, you simply need to know, recognize, admit and course correct your biases to prevent them from operating as hidden distractors that control you.

Below you find some examples of cognitive biases that we all suffer from:

1. Confirmation Bias – Your ideas are often based on paying attention to the information that upholds your existing ideas while ignoring input that challenges these pre-existing beliefs. You basically favor information that confirms you and your existing beliefs.

2. The halo effect – Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about their character. Your overall impression of a person ("She is fast") impacts your evaluations of that person's specific traits ("She must also be smart").

3. The self-serving bias – This is your tendency to take personal credit for success which you attribute to your traits and talents (this boosts your confidence) while blaming your failures on outside sources that are beyond your control, thereby protecting your self-esteem. Makes you feel a lot better I’m sure, but it’s not always reflecting reality. If you deliver a project within budget and on time you love to attribute this to your organizational and technical talents. When you have to negotiate for more time and money for a  project it is tempting to blame unforeseen variables such as illness of a team member and crazy client demands.

4. Functional fixedness – A type of cognitive bias that involves your tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way. For example, you might view a thumbtack as something that can only be used to hold paper to a corkboard. But what other uses might the item have? In many cases, functional fixedness can prevent you from seeing the full range of uses that an object might have. It can also impair your ability to think of novel solutions to problems.

How to deal with cognitive biases? Use the Triple A Formula:
Awareness, Acknowledgment, Adjustment

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