Understanding cognitive bias in the workplace

By Stéphanie Pelland - 2020 | 07 | 27

A conversation with Daniel Payette, industrial and organizational psychologist and senior consultant in leadership assessment and development at Optimum Talent.

There are hundreds of cognitive biases and most of them are unconscious. This article aims to better understand them using examples often observed at work.

Our consciousness- a snowball on the iceberg

In his work on the unconscious, Freud mentioned that our consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg. At the turn of the 21st century, Timothy Wilson, social psychologist and author of Strangers to Ourselves, said, “with a more modern perspective on the matter, we now realize that Freud had grossly underestimated the importance of the unconscious.” The conscious only representing, according to Wilson, “a snowball on the iceberg. “

With this perspective in mind, I decided to deepen my understanding of unconscious bias by writing a series of articles. The articles are intended to dissect how our biases have contributed to the creation of the workplace as we know it today, influencing the way we make each and every decision

The following 2 articles will cover:

Why do we have biases, and where do they come from?

Daniel – “Our biases are actually the result of shortcuts that our brains take, mostly unconsciously, in order to save energy and time. In and of themselves, our biases are not bad, maybe even useful. Without them we would be overwhelmed with information and unable to process the millions of pieces of information in our minds that help us make everyday decisions. Biases are, in a way, the side effect of this adaptive process, which in certain situations leads us to make mistakes and distortions”.

Biases helped our species survive

Our brains learn to process information and amalgamate it so that we can devote our energy to our daily tasks. These shortcuts have been at the heart of human evolution when we had to survive by learning to separate routine information from that which potentially led us to danger. If our brains had given the same importance to the roar of a lion as to the sound of the wind or the feeling of grass on our skin, the first leading to a fight or flight response and the second perhaps not even eliciting response at all, we would be a long-extinct species. It is therefore to ensure our survival that our brain prioritizes and eliminates signals from our consciousness and does not question the decisions it makes in ‘unconscious’ mode.

What about today?

For a more contemporary example, consider your very first week at a new job. Remember how exhausting it was? This feeling occurs when a lot of new information is sent to our brains, at a faster rate than usual. We try to deal with as much as possible, but at the time, we cannot separate the neuralgic stimuli (talking, touch, facial expressions, etc.) from everything else. The energy level required to analyze all the data is therefore considerable, given that our brains were interpreting it for the first time.

After a few weeks, the feeling of fatigue subsides, we get accustomed to our work environment and its tools, and we can now make countless micro-decisions without conscious effort (schedule a meeting, record a document in SharePoint, write a report…). A significant amount of energy is therefore preserved. 

The psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman has devoted his life to this concept of unconscious decision-making vs. decisions that require conscientious efforts. Some of us may have read his popular book: Thinking Fast and Slow.  

In his book, Kahneman explains that our brain likes to work with the information it already has, at the expense of having to make a conscious effort to create new concepts. 

The roles our biases play in today’s business environment

In the evolution of mankind and in our daily lives, we understand the importance of biases, but what about their effects on the way the business environment is built? 

It would be easy to assume that we all realize that we have biases and that they unconsciously color our decisions.

This is not always the case. 
A few years ago, Kristen A. Pressner, today one of the heads of the HR department at Roche Diagnostics, found herself treating two similar salary review requests differently: one from a man and the other from a woman. It was this event that sparked her awareness of the unconscious biases she had, and which contributed to the maintenance of prejudice, or unfair practices in the business world. She talks about this event and her reflections in her Ted Talk

Are biases dangerous in the workplace?

Daniel – ” Ironically enough, although our brain is the organ responsible for ensuring the survival of the species, the biases engendered by the shortcuts it takes can quickly become problematic in a business context. Redundant decisions, for example, choosing relevant CVs when mass hiring, are particularly prone to this phenomenon. 
This shortcut mode is also exacerbated when an individual is tired, stressed, or uncomfortable. That’s when the business community somehow becomes an incubator for unconscious bias.


Unconscious biases often observed in the functioning of organizations

Daniel – ” This question is difficult to answer, considering that there are many! Buster Benson, author and former product manager at Slack, looked into the matter and identified more than 200, which he continues to update on his site and on Wikipedia

According to my professional observation, here are the five most common biases to watch for in the workplace: “

The Confirmation Bias

Daniel – ” This bias can be the most dangerous or at least the most salient. Confirmation bias gives more weight to observations, arguments, or demonstrations that go in the same direction as our values and pre-existing opinions. It goes without saying that confirmation bias also tends to make us doubt the arguments that go against our values. “

Confirmation bias is often seen in recruiters during the recruitment process. For example, if a candidate is cheerful and dynamic during a telephone interview, the recruiter will tend to perceive him to be just as dynamic during his in-person interview. Objectively, the level of dynamism of the candidate may not be anything exceptional, but the recruiter will unconsciously seek to confirm that it is.

Another example is a manager who prohibits remote work for his team, judging that this practice reduces team cohesion. This same manager will give much more importance to events, studies, and articles, which reinforce his opinion.

The Pygmalion Effect

Widely documented in the Education sector (Rosenthal-Jacobson study), the Pygmalion effect states that the conceptions and expectations towards a person concretely influence their behavior. 

  • “In the business world, and more specifically in management, the Pygmalion effect has often been the subject of analysis in behavioral science. This analysis revealed that:
  • What managers expect of subordinates and the way they treat them largely determine their performance and career progress.
  • A unique characteristic of superior managers is the ability to create high-performance expectations that subordinates fulfill.
  • Less effective managers fail to develop similar expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.
  • Subordinates, more often than not, appear to do what they believe they are expected to do.”


Daniel suggests the interview setting further explains and amplifies the Pygmalion effect. ” If a recruiter is given a negative reference for the candidate he is about to interview, the interviewer will be less friendly and more demanding during the interview. This will affect the performance of the candidate during the interview and, in a way, confirm the bias of the recruiter: he was right to doubt the candidate.”

The Halo Effect

Daniel – ” The halo effect represents our tendency to focus on a characteristic that we appreciate in a person to conclude that this person must necessarily be someone good. The opposite effect, called the horn effect, consists in retaining only one trait which is unpleasant to us in a person to conclude that this person must necessarily be unlikable. “ 
To describe this bias in the business world, think of integrating an employee into a team coaching session. During the first meeting, if a participant presents themselves as well-dressed and perfectly coiffed, the coach manager and his colleagues could, unconsciously, conclude that this person must necessarily be efficient, because of the way they look. 

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Daniel – ” This bias occurs when one focuses much more on an individual’s personality than on the circumstances of a situation to explain their behavior. For example, I call a company for the first time and the receptionist answers me a bit dryly. I then tell myself that she is terrible at her job, instead of thinking that she may be having a bad day or that she just received bad news. 
The attribution error can play a critical role in the evaluation of performance. For example, if a product manager does not meet his deadline, we could immediately say that this employee does not meet the requirements for the job, suspecting he’s disorganized. We may be forgetting that, from an objective point of view, this particular product manager is working on a difficult project that includes demanding deliverables on a very strict schedule. “

In both cases, the incidence of the personality and personal characteristics of the individual is overestimated to the detriment of the real cause which comes from the environment of that individual.

The Availability Bias

Here too, the availability bias plays an important role in assessing performance. An employee who has had a successful career working for a company for five years can go through a difficult divorce which will cause a temporary decrease in his productivity. If the employee’s annual evaluation arrives at the same time, the evaluation will be affected.

Simply put: we place more importance on recent information, to which our brains have easy access.

Daniel – ” The availability bias also explains, among other things, why certain organizations are so influenced by the ambient discourse and management trends. A manager, sensitive to recent writings on the importance of agility, could think that this is the fundamental problem to be resolved to improve the efficiency of his team, when in fact settling other issues, more pressing for this organization, could have more impact. The manager’s diagnosis was therefore influenced by the information which he easily remembered, with which he was in contact recently. ”


Paving the path with self-awareness

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of biases that we can study to better understand how our brains make decisions. When we talk about the business community, awareness and self-awareness can lead to the creation of more objective, and often more successful, organizations. Understanding the origin of these biases and identifying some that could harm the functioning of organizations is certainly the first step. However, certain strategies can be implemented to better manage them. These strategies will be covered in the next article.

Thanks to Daniel Payette, industrial and organizational psychologist and senior consultant in leadership assessment and development at Optimum Talent.

For many years Daniel developed a strong interest in unconscious biases and how they influence one’s brain and leadership. He frequently gives training and webinars about this topic for public or private organizations. 

Written by
Stéphanie Pelland