3 Biases Every Leadership Team Needs to Watch Out For

Leadership teams can fall into thinking traps like any other team. Here are three common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

As a strategic coach, I spend a lot of time helping leadership teams assess their current situations and find key areas that need focus. At the core of my role is helping teams identify and articulate the issues and then facilitate the discussion between members. I make sure the conversation stays constructive, that all of the issues are being addressed, and that everyone is contributing their thoughts and ideas to the discussion.

business-meeting-bruceHaving worked with dozens of leadership teams and held hundreds of strategy and planning sessions, I’ve found a key set of ruts and bad patterns that teams fall into. These are common thinking traps that every team can find themselves in. However, for leadership teams, the costs of these traps can be very high and impact everyone in the organization.

Here are the three most common ones that I come across and how I typically help teams get out of them. For all of the teams I work with, my initial step is to help them see that they are in a trap, which can be a challenge. From there, we can change their setup and behaviors to get out of the trap and avoid falling in one again in the future.

1. Anchoring

This one is rampant in most leadership teams. Usually, it comes in the form of the CEO or another powerful executive dominating the conversation and leading with strong opinions that everyone else needs to then argue for or against. The problem is that this sways everyone’s thinking and will suppress other comments and ideas, which is exactly what we don’t want if we’re striving for perspective and constructive debate.

The solution to this is to have a clear process for articulating the topic and gathering data and success criteria before launching into solutions and decisions. I also typically have the CEO or other influential executives on the team speak last so they don’t skew the discussion.

2. Correlation = Causation

It’s easy to assume that just because one thing relates to another there is a causal relationship. My favorite example is a study that appeared in Nature in 1999 that showed that parents who leave the lights on in their infant’s bedroom at night cause myopia. One year later, Nature published a new study that showed that the lights have no impact, but rather there is a strong correlation between nearsighted parents having nearsighted children. The lights were just something that nearsighted parents left on so they could see better.

Leadership teams fall into this same trap. Just because one thing goes up at the same time as another, it doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Making that assumption and failing to find the true cause can lead teams down bad paths.

The way to avoid this is to assume temporarily that the opposite is true and try to prove that by looking for evidence. If you can make a plausible argument, you might be looking at a correlation, not a causation situation.

3. Polarization

As humans, we love drama. It’s what makes for compelling movies and page-turner books. But on leadership teams, it’s typically a liability. Unfortunately, it can be human nature to take one event or one case and to assign a disproportionate meaning or weight to it in order to make a point or advance a personal agenda.

Key giveaways that this is happening are when I hear people using “never” and “always” in their arguments. This technique is usually employed to emphasize a point or to strengthen an argument, but, instead, they are just setting things up for an argument.

Instead, I encourage teams to speak with realistic data and probabilities. If you know that 82 percent of the deals close within a month, don’t say “we always close.” And if you know someone was late to the daily huddle three times last week, don’t say they are “never on time.” While you may think you’re making a stronger point, you’re just going to pick a fight over the data.

While there are many other traps a team can fall into, these are the top three that stymie most leadership teams. Knowing what they are and when you’ve fallen into one of them can help you get out more quickly. And once you get better at seeing them, you can start avoiding them altogether.



Bruce Eckfeldt

Bruce Eckfeldt

Bruce Eckfeldt is an entrepreneur, a former Inc 500 CEO, and member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He is an expert in organizational performance and coaches startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management.

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