Beware Your Biases! Interview with Erin Mahoney

Erin MahoneyErin Mahoney is Director, Training & Organization Development for the Cascade Employers Association. In this interview, she shares her insights into the hidden biases humans possess.

Jathan Janove: What are some of the common biases people bring into the workplace?

Erin Mahoney: There are so many! Most of the time, when I bring up biases, people think of discrimination and prejudice. While those certainly exist, in my practice I focus on the ones that we’re not even aware of that interfere with our interpersonal effectiveness, and unfortunately, they’re ones every single one of us has.

Jathan: How come we’re so biased?

Erin: As with most things, it probably served a purpose from an evolutionary standpoint of self-preservation. But like our fight-or-flight response, these biases and instincts rarely come in handy in the modern workplace.

Jathan: Is there a particular bias that’s especially problematic?

Erin: I do have a favorite. It’s called fundamental attribution error. It sounds esoteric and like something that’s only relevant in an advanced graduate psychology class, but despite its easily forgettable name, it’s everywhere you look.

Jathan: What is it and how is it problematic?

Erin: It’s our tendency to believe that someone’s behavior is due to their personality or character – internal factors – rather than any other external factors that may be in play. If someone does something bad, we don’t look at the context. We think they did it because they’re bad. But when we do something bad, though we may accept some responsibility, we think it’s totally legitimate to look at all the conditions that contributed to the situation. (The latter example is called self-serving bias.) When others point to external factors we just say they’re making excuses.

Jathan: Can you share a couple of examples?

Erin: The one I share most frequently is the road rage example. If someone cuts me off in traffic, my first thought isn’t “they’re probably lost” or “they’re probably late for work.” Rather, I think he or she is a horrible human being without regard for the lives of other drivers.

Now, in the workplace, it may look a little differently. Let’s say your colleague, Monica, said she’d get you her portion of a project you’re working on by today and she missed the deadline. Fundamental attribution error kicks in when we start creating negative narratives as to why she did so—that Monica’s lazy, or has a poor work ethic, she’s sloppy and disorganized, or maybe you’re thinking she has no respect for you or the project. We’re attributing her actions to a fundamental internal flaw within her.

Now from Monica’s perspective, she probably sees competing priorities, an emerging urgent situation, or the fact that she’s waiting on others to do her portion of the project – all external factors – as the problem. And if you were Monica, you’d think the same thing, too. But you’re not. So even if Monica tells you this is why she missed the deadline you probably think that those were just “excuses” and that if she were a better worker it wouldn’t be a problem.

Jathan: What prevention or remedial steps do you recommend?

Erin: I wish there was a way to prevent it. Unfortunately, it seems to be one of our “default” settings. However, you can be on the lookout for it, especially in times of conflict or potential conflict. Be mindful of narratives and stories you create regarding blame or other people’s motivations in situations. If you think you might be succumbing to fundamental attribution error, ask yourself, “Why else might this person have done this? Why would I have done the exact same thing?” Try to view the situation from their perspective.

Jathan: What other suggestions or advice do you have for people or organizations trying to keep their biases under control?

Erin: Spread the word so that others know about it, too. Make sure you make it clear that this is something we all do and need to be on the lookout for. Encourage individuals to coach each other around it. In times of conflict, if you’re having difficulty coming up with an alternative narrative as to why someone is behaving a certain way, enlist other people’s help.