Are you a biased project manager?
Most people would say “No, definitely not!” – and it’s hopefully a given that you’re not in any way deliberately biased, favoring men over women, or being biased against members of another race.
But we all have biases, even if we don’t notice them. You might already be taking steps to weed out any possible biases during your recruitment process, but that’s definitely not the only time when you need to look out for biases.
There are two key types of bias that can affect your project management:
- Biases about your team’s working practices
- Cognitive biases that affect your decision-making
We’re going to take a look at some key examples of each type, running through some ways to get rid of (or at least mitigate) each bias.
Biases Against Working Practices That Impact on Your Team
#1: “People Won’t Be Productive When Working from Home”
If you’re used to working in an office environment, you might be concerned that remote-working employees will slack off or take advantage of their freedom and flexibility.
Maybe you have disconcerting visions of your work-from-home team members spending the day watching television in their PJs, or sloping off for long lunches while ignoring their emails.
The truth is that most employees find that working from home helps them to get more done, often because they can more easily avoid distractions and work during their best times of day. Of course, it’s important to keep an eye on outputs and address any potential problems – but you should try to operate from the assumption that your employees want to make good progress with their work.
If you treat your employees with suspicion and try to micromanage (e.g. by insisting on very frequent check-ins, or by berating them for not being at their desk when you phoned at 8.01 a.m.) then this isn’t going to make for a happy, engaged team.
#2: “Early Mornings are Better Than Late Nights”
Are you a self-described “lark”? Do you like to get up and start your day when most people are still asleep? If so, you probably find that you’re most productive in the early hours of the day.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – but this becomes a problem when you end up believing that everyone is more productive in the morning.
You might have team members who are “night owls”: they might not wake up early, but instead, they like to work late at night. Unless there are good reasons why this isn’t possible (e.g. they need to closely coordinate with other employees), you should make every effort to let them work the hours that suit them best.
Don’t criticize them for not being an early morning person, don’t send them “helpful” suggestions of books to read to turn them into a lark like you, and don’t make jokey comments like “good afternoon!” when they come into the office or appear online at 10 a.m. Instead, encourage them to work the hours that suit them best.
(Of course, if you have employees who are ending up working late into the night not because they enjoy working then but because they’re overloaded, then you do need to address that. Don’t let any team member struggle on with a heavy workload: look at ways to redistribute their tasks or bring in extra help.)
The same thing applies to any working practices that suit you but might not suit someone else. Perhaps you thrive on taking a long lunch break to go to the gym, and you feel it refreshes you for the afternoon. That’s great – but you shouldn’t expect or push your team members to do the same. They might find it works best for them to take a quick 20 minute break instead.
Cognitive Biases That Affect Your Decision-Making
There are a number of common cognitive biases that you should be aware of, as a project manager. These are ways of thinking that are very normal, but that can affect your decision-making in a negative way.
This is one of the most common and well-known project management biases, and you may well have experienced it in your own work.
The planning fallacy is where you underestimate how long a project or task is going to take. This happens to everyone (not just project managers!) but it’s a particularly important one to be aware of, as your work almost certainly involves coming up with a timeline for your project and meeting it.
It happens because of our tendency to assume best-case conditions (e.g. you don’t allow for team members getting sick, or someone quitting part-way through the project) and also because we don’t necessarily consider the data from similar cases (e.g. you assume that you can get this project finished in three months, even though your predecessor’s team took nine months on a similar project).
Whether or not you want to believe it, the most realistic way to figure out your delivery date is to look at how long this type of project took other people. Team time trackers have been created specifically for this purpose - you can see clearly what time was spent on particular project or particular type of task. Alternatively, you could simply double your first time estimate: that might sound like a ridiculous amount of extra time, but it’s likely that you’ll end up needing it.
Confirmation bias is a very common trap to fall into, and involves favoring information that supports your existing position. For instance, if you’ve decided that you can deliver on your next milestone in two weeks’ time, you’ll be more likely to focus on your employees’ track record of speedy work … rather than on the fact that this milestone requires them to tackle some new challenges that they haven’t handled before.
When you find yourself soliciting only information that backs you up, pause and ask yourself whether you’re falling into the confirmation bias track. Actively look for information that contradicts your belief or position instead.
This can also be linked with other cognitive biases, such as the “anchoring bias” and the “disconfirmation bias”.
When you first come across a new idea or piece of information, your brain tends to be to be “anchored” with it.
This happens in all sorts of areas, such as with pricing. For instance, if you come across some Gantt chart software that costs $200 that sets your “anchor” for how expensive you expect that type of product to be – even if there might be a better alternative out there for $50.
This can be an issue in many areas of business. You might, for instance, assume that a certain rate of work is “standard” or “expected” because that’s the rate at which your first employee or direct report worked. Even if they were unusually fast or slow, it can take a long time for you to realize that your anchor isn’t accurate.
The disconfirmation bias is essentially the inverse of the confirmation bias. When you come across evidence that contradicts your position or beliefs, you’ll be much more likely to contest and criticize it than you would be with evidence that supports you.
It’s important to be very careful to resist any “knee-jerk” reaction that prompts you to dismiss something in this way. Even if an idea is flawed or information is inaccurate, you should still give it fair consideration – otherwise, you might be missing out on something truly valuable.
As a project manager, it’s very easy to get derailed from what’s truly important because of all the details of all the things you could be considering.
For instance, you might decide that it’s important for your team to have good communication software that allows them to collaborate as seamlessly as possible, even with many members working remotely. That is indeed likely to be an important goal … but if you get bogged down reading review after review of different platforms, or if you spend lots of time and money implementing solution after solution because you’re convinced there might be something just a little bit better out there, then you’re falling into the information bias.
Be realistic about what matters and what doesn’t. Go with something you’re 90% sure of – don’t feel you need to investigate every possibility exhaustively. Before you start researching a decision, set out the key factors that you need to consider – and don’t spend your time gathering information that goes beyond these.
There are other cognitive biases out there, of course, but these are some of the main ones to be aware of as a project manager.
One final bias to look out for is the “bias blind spot” – where you think that other people fall prey to these biases, but that you don’t (or at least not to the same degree). Yes, that’s a bias too!
Simply being aware of these common biases can help; where possible, test any areas of bias by looking for contradictory or more wide-reaching information. That way, you’ll be able to base your decisions on real facts, not just biases and assumptions, and your projects should be truly successful.
Erika Rykun is an independent copywriter and content manager. She is a believer in a high-quality networking, avid reader and runner.