Bias number seven is called attentional bias. As the name suggests, this bias refers to the way in which a person’s perception is affected by the selective focus of thoughts on a particular topic.
People are limited by this bias when their ability to see and accept alternative possibilities is impaired by the focus on a narrow aspect of an overall picture. In particular, people with an attentional bias towards or against something will respond to cues in the environment that activate the bias.
How does it work? In cases of addiction, for example, people addicted to smoking or a particular drug will have a heightened sensitivity to cues that create openings to indulge in their habit of choice.
In my case, as a former smoker I was happy to join someone on the smoking balcony to take a break from the daily grind. Not only was I looking for an excuse to take break from work, but I also enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow smoking colleagues. If I saw a work friend crossing the office and heading towards the back door, I picked up my packet of Marlboro Lights and followed suit. My non-smoking colleagues remained oblivious to the subtle invitations these intentional strides across the office presented.
The attentional bias is obvious in people who deal with chronic health concerns, including depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that people diagnosed with anxiety and depression orient themselves to negative words more than people whose mental health is sound.
So, how might the attentional bias be affecting you in the workplace? Let’s start by looking at your own attitudinal orientation.
Are you a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full kind of person? This will give you a clue as to an attentional bias that might be affecting your approach to business.
Most people believe that negative thinking is unproductive. Conversely, we assume that positive thinking is a good thing. But, is it always the case that positive thinking is “good” and negative thinking is “bad”?
Not necessarily. In fact, positive thinking can become downright obstructive if you are so addicted to positivity that you refuse to acknowledge the whole of reality, which is not always positive. At the same time, negative thinking can be vital in helping you mitigate risks by seeing potential pitfalls that you wouldn’t acknowledge from a positive mindset.
Let’s look at a real world example so you can get a sense of how this operates in reality.
A former client of mine was excelling at her job in a global accountancy firm. An ambitious professional, she was being put forward for promotion. On the surface, this was a positive step forward. Her team loved her. Her clients loved her. The management team loved her. She delivered excellent results.
So, what was the problem?
She was so addicted to her vision of success that she couldn’t see how she was setting herself up for failure. She worked 16-hour days, travelling two hours each way to get into London and back home, and she had a pre-teen daughter whom she rarely saw during the week.
Her manager gave her a piece of advice: work on time management. She tried all sorts of time management skills and nothing was working. There was something deeper going on for her that drove her need to be successful.
What she and I discovered is that she was trying to create success on top of the core belief, “I’m not good enough.” Everything she did was oriented around proving to herself and to others, in particular her family, that she was good enough. She bore the weight of responsibility for her multinational clients entirely upon herself, and she was on the road to serious burnout.
I’ll bet this sounds familiar to some of you, right?
During our sessions, she saw that her assumption of all responsibility for the success of her projects disempowered the people who worked for her. Treating her team members as children meant that she was actively preventing them from expanding in their management and leadership skills. Being overly protective inhibited their opportunities to learn how to assume responsibility for their actions and deal with challenges powerfully as a result.
When she discovered this, she restructured her work around the idea of empowerment so that she could benefit from the fruits of her labour, empower her team and spend time with her family. She learned to trust others more and demand less from herself.
In a scenario where empowerment and success for all provides the context, everyone benefits.
This is an example of how something we consider positive, in this case success, can turn into a negative if the focus on success outweighs the detriment it is creating in other areas of life.
So, the question for you is, where are you placing too much attention in business? Do you have a tendency to gossip? Do you focus on results at the expense of relationships?
Or are you so convinced that technology or mathematics provides the solution to every problem that you fail to recognise the impact this narrow focus has on people?
Consider the mistake the UK government made in recent weeks with their woefully inadequate approach to number-crunching A-level results. They were willing to sacrifice the futures of young people for the sake of a misguided faith in algorithms that themselves proved to be inherently biased.
Given the discussion about the importance of people's mental health in the current climate, it is disappointing that people in leadership positions make such insensitive, myopic and unethical decisions on behalf of the people who represent the future of the nation.
At the same time, the situation shows that a justifiable outcry from the people and a demand to do things differently can make a difference. The Department of Education's backtracking on its approach to managing the A-level and GCSE grading approach needs a serious rethink before we accept it in future.
Here's the final point to make about the debacle. It's not that algorithms are negative. It is the case that the algorithms need a level of sophistication of thought that was lacking in this iteration of the approach to grade allocation.
Algorithms are prone to the biases of their creators. When it comes to a situation, like exam results, that affect the emotional and psychological wellbeing as well as the future of a huge group of people, it makes sense that considerable care and attention be given to the structure of the logic.
The frustrating thing is that algorithmic bias is a well-known issue. Why the Department of Education chose to ignore this fact is anyone's guess. The good news is that public outcry can make a positive difference.
If there's one recommendation I could make, it would be this. Hire psychologists who can identify and correct logic biases before a sweeping system is put in place. Situations like this provide great opportunities if you're willing to learn from your mistakes.
Consider that NOTHING is entirely positive or negative. Every cloud has a silver lining, and every silver lining has a cloud. It’s this acknowledgement that enables you to step out of hyper focus on one aspect of a situation and learn to see both the wood and the trees.
This magnanimity of mind brings forth integrity, a dynamic frame of mind that is committed to wholeness and completeness. And like a brilliant diamond, its multi-faceted nature generates light that is capable of including all perspectives.
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