Where do you get information about the issues you care about?
Do your most common sources confirm or challenge your perspective?
How much time do you spend listening to or reading opposing points of view?
When you make decisions, are you likely to choose the option that the people closest to you will affirm?
In my recent Mindful article, I talked about the importance of adaptability as an essential emotional intelligence competency for leaders. Part of being adaptable is seeking out and being able to take in a broad range of information from many perspectives. It also means being open to alternatives not previously considered. The more ideas or strategies you have to choose from, the more likely you are to choose the most beneficial path.
Neuroscientists have shown that our brain reacts differently to information that confirms our previously held beliefs than it does to material that contradicts our current beliefs.
But a subtle, yet powerful obstacle to such open-mindedness in leadership is confirmation bias—the tendency to see things in ways that confirm your existing beliefs. This often-unconscious bias can impact all levels of how you interact with information, from seeking and interpreting it, to preferring and remembering it. Neuroscientists have shown that our brain reacts differently to information that confirms our previously held beliefs than it does to material that contradicts our current beliefs.
Why Confirmation Bias Matters
One key to effective leadership is a clear understanding of everything that impacts the setting in which the leader operates. If your view is limited by confirmation bias, you may not pay enough attention to information that could be crucial for your work. Leaders also need to be on the lookout for how it might impact the people with whom they work. For example, team members may not share a full range of information or may only tell a leader what they think that leader wants to hear. This can lead to poor decision-making, missed opportunities, and negative outcomes.
How to Avoid Confirmation Bias
Mindfulness and emotional intelligence can both help. People who have high levels of emotional intelligence demonstrate specific competencies that support taking a broad, unbiased perspective. These are some of the EI competencies that help a leader take the broad view:
- Emotional self-awareness is the basis for much of emotional intelligence. Those who are adept at this competency recognize how their feelings impact their behavior.
- Developing emotional self-control is the crucial next step after becoming aware. With this skill, leaders are in control of their feelings instead of their emotions being in control of them.
- Empathy allows us to take on the perspective of others, even those with whom we disagree.
- Leaders with organizational awareness recognize the power dynamics in their organization and the values of the organization and its key players.
- Conflict management requires understanding competing perspectives and skill at helping others find common ground.
Avoiding confirmation bias starts with paying attention to how you interact with information.
The basic moves in mindfulness—focus, notice being distracted, refocus—trains your brain to both concentrate and pause so you can pay careful attention.
One way to enhance this might be developing a mindfulness meditation practice, which helps with both emotional self-awareness and self-control. The basic moves in mindfulness—focus, notice being distracted, refocus—trains your brain to both concentrate and pause so you can pay careful attention.
As you practice mindfulness you’ll find that your point of view naturally broadens. You are more likely to have the patience to hear out arguments, even when they contradict your own long-held beliefs, more open to new experiences, and be inclined towards more thoughtful decision-making. But keep in mind that even the most fastidious practitioner could succumb to confirmation bias, so remain open to new ideas and try to recognize when confirmation bias might be present.