My mentor, Stephen K. Hall, who passed away long ago, warned me that overcoming bias, the tendency for how people think and act, would be my greatest career challenge. Bias permeates society, organizations, and particularly impacts the science needed to make informed safety and health decisions. 

Steve held several academic degrees, including a Ph.D. with honors in chemistry from Harvard. When the May 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review was released that focused on articles on “How to outsmart your biases and broaden your thinking,” I devoured the information to renew Steve’s teaching and confirm my success/failure to follow his wisdom.

Causes of poor decisions

According to the HBR articles, there are two main causes of poor decision-making: insufficient motivation and cognitive biases. Bias becomes ingrained from the moment we are born and develops throughout our lives by influences we may not perceive. Recognizing what biases are and overcoming them is a significant but necessary challenge if occupational safety and health objectives are to be achieved. 

Among the many biases: overconfidence (Steve felt early on was my greatest challenge); confirmation bias; anchoring and insufficient adjustment; groupthink; egocentrism; loss aversion; controllability bias; status quo bias; and present bias.

Checklists counter overconfidence

A checklist is one way to overcome overconfidence bias. HBR provides the example where medical personnel followed a checklist during surgery and found the new practice “resulted in 36% fewer major complications and 47% fewer deaths.” Checklists in occupational safety and health for hazards such as confined space entry, LOTO, forklift operation, PPE and many others should never be ignored or pencil-whipped.

“Don’t miss near misses,” is another bias to overcome, as noted by HBR. HBR includes the example of a machine malfunction that released hot gas. No one was injured in the event and the general bias is to “dismiss this episode as unimportant.” Although this bias is understood by safety and health pros, overcoming it doesn’t get the full attention it greatly deserves.

Steve was particularly frustrated by blinding bias. An example of blinding bias is stereotyping by age, ethnicity, race, and gender. HBR provides the example of the now standard practice for orchestra players to audition behind a screen to prevent gender bias. Because of this practice, female membership in orchestras has “skyrocketed from 5% in 1970 to nearly 40% today,” according to the HBR.

Steve routinely experienced blinding bias. Steve was the product of a Chinese mother and a British father. His facial features were Asian. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Steve’s accent, although muted, remained. If Steve were only judged behind the screen he’d win every audition – but that’s not how life is. Are you negatively impacted by blinding bias, such as age?

A little conflict is good

Steve encouraged debates. He wanted me to always “dig deeper” to justify most of my answers. HBR explains this bias understanding through a Peter Drucker quote, “The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement.” Most people disagree to some extent but far too often it is a passive disagreement that yields to status quo bias. Most people prefer status quo in the absence of pressure to change it.

Pressure to change the status quo is often stalled or stopped by groupthink bias. Groupthink bias leads to censorship that restricts conflicting information from entering into decisions.  Censorship, in its many nefarious various forms, may create a “toxic” business environment, according to HBR.

The U.S. Supreme Court provided a March 25, 2015, ruling on employer bias against pregnant workers in Young v. UPS. The majority ruled in favor of the pregnant worker — overturning decades of groupthink bias. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s dissenting remarks in this case illustrate the critical point of the bias of indifference. Kennedy found that UPS showed “no animus or hostility to pregnant women” and therefore did not violate the law. Justice Kennedy, however, provided a stern admonishment of UPS being indifferent to the plight of pregnant workers:

“But as a matter of societal concern, indifference is quite another matter. There must be little doubt that women who are in the work force – by choice, by financial necessity, or both – confront a serious disadvantage after becoming pregnant. They may find it difficult to continue to work, at least in their regular assignment, while still taking necessary steps to avoid risks to their health and health of future children. This is why the difficulties pregnant women face in the workplace are and do remain an issue of national importance.”

First steps

We need to overcome our own biases before we tackle the biases of others. But changing the way people’s brains are wired is very hard, as noted by HBR.  Recognizing and controlling individual biases may be a lifetime pursuit.

Of all the biases I believe groupthink and its connection to status quo is the greatest challenge to overcome. First, someone must go against the flow of the group, work to change the way the group thinks – and then in a bit of irony – develop a new groupthink; then repeat as needed.