Beware these remote management biases

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Nov 17 2023 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

As the rational, well-intentioned, highly professional manager of a remote or hybrid team, do you make mistakes? Odds are you do. Likely because your brain tends to process information in certain ways that work most of the time. Most of the time. But we all have biases that occasionally get us in trouble.

I have become a fan of the new TV show, The Irrational. In this show, Jesse L. Martin plays a college professor who specializes in behavioral psychology. In particular, he tracks why people make seemingly irrational choices. Most often, he points out, it’s because of the natural biases in our brains. It is based on the book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shaper Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely.

Bias sounds like a bad word. We associate it with prejudice, or unfair judgment. But it is our brain’s way of playing the odds. With all the information coming at us, we simply can’t judge every single situation on its own merits. Instead, we go with the most likely answer. If we’re not careful, this can blind us to other options.

Here are six of the twelve most common biases that impact decision-making for leaders, according to experts.

Proximity Bias

We talk a lot about this in the world of remote and hybrid work. Leaders and teammates frequently rely on those people with whom they share a physical workspace over those who are elsewhere. Mostly this happens because it’s quicker and easier to get an answer without typing on Teams or Slack. Quick and easy sometimes gets confused with “best.” It’s also self-perpetuating. The more you work with a small group of people, the tighter the relationships become and the higher trust grows. While unintended, it then seemingly excludes those not in the vicinity.

Confirmation Bias

This is the tendency to interpret information in ways that match how we already feel about something. You may have two team members who are quiet in a particular meeting. One person seems abnormally quiet, leading you to wonder if something is going on with them. The other person is “always quiet,” causing you to overlook their frustration or reticence to participate.

Affinity Bias

Do you gravitate to people who have your work style? Do you prefer working with people who are loud and competitive like you because that shows passion? Or do you prefer working with people who are “early arrivals” at the office like you? Perhaps you all harshly judge those who don’t always make it to work on time and bond over it. Affinity bias says that we like people who are most like us. When you are in the office with people, you sometimes get a bigger picture of how they work. When we work remotely, we may have a smaller data set and rely on judgements that might be skewed.

Conformity Bias

This is the $10 name for peer-pressure. Think of a large group of peers – they could be colleagues or students or club members. People of relatively equal stature within the group. Those who act in ways consistent with their peers are judged as “a good fit,” or “consistent with our culture.” This may result in group-think. In a group-think culture, people don’t fight for their ideas or question the team’s decisions and risk rocking the boat. As a manager, it’s tempting to default to the group norm. Those who behave differently or challenge the status quo are “troublemakers” or “malcontents” and are frequently ignored or chastised.

Attribution Bias

This is where you try to make sense of someone’s behavior based on what you know about them. “Bob is always complaining, so we don’t take his concerns seriously. But Rajesh never usually says anything, so this must be serious.” Frequently, this results in defaulting to those with the longest tenure (i.e. “Terry doesn’t know how things really work here yet.”). This is often the biggest cause of discrepancies in performance evaluations.

Recency Bias

Our brains tend to take the latest information as the most relevant. For example, let’s say you’re interviewing a number of people for a position. You’re likely to judge the latest applicant against the previous candidate, rather than the whole interview pool. If the previous interviewee was not acceptable, you’re likely to overestimate the skills of the next moderately competent candidate.

If you’re feeling guilty after reading this, relax. Everyone has these biases. What matters is being aware of them and asking yourself one simple question. Is what I’m seeing/hearing objectively true or does it just seem that way?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.