The 5 Biggest Behavioral Biases that Distributed Managers Need to Be Aware Of
Brian Russell, Managing Director | September 21 2023
With the onset of the pandemic, the traditional model of centralized management has undergone a major transformation. Remote work and distributed teams stretched across time zones have become more and more common.
While working in a decentralized work environment has proven to be beneficial for many organizations, offering unprecedented opportunities for flexibility and global collaboration, it also presents a unique set of challenges.
For example, it can be tricky for managers to grasp the circumstances in which colleagues work and live when you don’t see them regularly. Layer that on top of navigating a complex web of diverse backgrounds, geographic distances, and new communications tools, and you have a real conundrum. For these reasons, it's more important than ever for leaders to be aware of their own behavioral biases that can impact their decision-making processes and team dynamics.
Behavioral biases are mental shortcuts or “rules of thumb” that we use to make decisions quickly and efficiently. While these shortcuts can be helpful in some cases, they can also lead us to make poor decisions. This is especially true for distributed managers, or leaders who are scattered around the globe, who often have to make decisions with limited information.
Recognizing and mitigating these biases will promote a more productive and equitable workplace environment. In this guide, we discuss the five behavioral biases that distributed managers need to be aware of, tips for avoiding these biases, and how adopting a snap-in team can help.
- Proximity Bias
As humans, we feel more in control with physical proximity, so even though we have the tools to bridge any virtual distance, it is still a natural tendency to give preferential treatment to those who are physically close to us.
Proximity bias is an important bias that managers navigating a distributed team need to be aware of.
Imagine you’re at work and have two very important projects to manage. One project is located in the same building as your office, a few steps away from your desk, while the other project is being carried out in a different city. You may feel a stronger sense of control over the project that’s in your own backyard.
The same phenomenon applies to our personal relationships, too. Personal relationships are more likely to form with individuals you are physically close to at work. You can pop into their office for an impromptu conversation, so being in the same physical space can help to develop closer relationships with team members.
Subconsciously, a manager may be more likely to assign important projects to employees who they can see and talk to regularly. They may also be more likely to give positive feedback to employees who work in the same office, and it can leave those who are situated remotely feeling less connected and left out.
When proximity bias gets out of hand, it can have a number of negative consequences for distributed teams, leading to decreased employee morale, increased turnover, and reduced productivity. Furthermore, it can create a sense of inequality and unfairness within the team.
It’s important for leaders to understand and recognize proximity bias to ensure all team members have a fair chance to develop and grow. You need to be careful that you aren’t falling into this all-too-human trap, especially if some team members live closer than others.
How managers can avoid proximity bias:
- Communication is key. Make an effort to connect with all your team members, regardless of their location. Arrange routine one-on-ones and utilize video conferencing to encourage face-to-face communication.
- Schedule “water cooler” talks. Schedule fun virtual meetups without a set agenda to get to know your team members outside of work. This could be a virtual coffee chat or happy hour.
- Be clear about your expectations. Provide regular feedback to all your team members.
- Be objective. Use objective criteria when making decisions about promotions, projects, and other important matters.
We all know that virtual meetings can be demanding, especially when you spend your entire day staring at a screen, whether it is for a meeting or checking things off your to-do list. We have all felt the dreaded Zoom fatigue creep in – especially around that 3 p.m. slump.
When employees get burnt out, they are less likely to speak up, voice criticism, or question decisions more closely. They may even check-out, stop listening, and start browsing the internet or answering emails.
This increases the risk of groupthink. Groupthink is a phenomenon in which a group of people reach a consensus without critically analyzing the information at hand, or without considering alternative solutions.
Groupthink can be especially prevalent in virtual meetings, where it can be difficult to read people’s body language and facial expressions. Furthermore, the more people that are in a meeting, the easier it is for people to “check out” or hide behind their screen and let a few outspoken individuals do most of the talking. The more similar the team, and the more draining the virtual meeting experience, the greater the risk of group think.
How managers can avoid groupthink:
- Encourage participation: Make sure everyone has a chance to speak up and share these ideas. As a leader, you can call on employees to share their opinion, use round-robin questioning, or have everyone contribute a few notes prior to the call.
- Be open to different perspectives. Create a safe environment that encourages people to speak up. Let employees know it’s OK to disagree with the majority opinion and to challenge the status quo.
- Take breaks. Virtual meetings can be draining. Take breaks throughout a long meeting and encourage employees to schedule down time during their day. This could even be a 15-minute walk to clear their head.
- Use polling and surveys. Polling and surveys in a chat are a great way to get everyone’s input on a topic without putting pressure on anyone to speak up.
- Attribution Bias
In a distributed working world, managers lack the context in which employees work and live. Interactions are often sporadic, and the limited exposure can make it difficult to understand the actions and behaviors of individuals, without considering the broader context.
Attribution bias is the tendency to attribute the successes of others to their internal qualities, rather than situational influences. This can manifest in various ways, greatly affecting team dynamics.
Managers distributed from their teams can be prone to this bias. Being more mindful about a certain set of circumstances, like a personal issue, can make us more considerate and help to promote an equitable and productive work environment.
How managers can avoid attribution bias:
- Be fair and objective. Avoid making assumptions about a team member’s situation. Try to get the full picture before jumping to conclusions.
- Consider all the factors: Slow down and take time to understand a person’s skills and abilities, the resources they had available, and the challenges they faced to draw conclusions.
- Put yourself in their shoes: To better understand your colleague’s behavior, try recalling different situations in which you’ve exhibited a similar behavior.
- Confirmation Bias
We’re all guilty of confirmation bias at some point in our lives: the mental shortcut that results in us seeking out, preferring, and remembering things in a way that agrees with what we already believe.
Working in an office provided opportunities for spontaneous conversations and feedback. However, in the modern workday, and in a distributed work environment, we have less exposure to different ideas and perspectives, and those sporadic conversations are few and far between. As a result, there are less opportunities to connect and share ideas with colleagues from different teams and functions.
Now, water cooler talks, and spontaneous conversations must be scheduled via Zoom – and Zoom fatigue can dissuade many of us from even having a conversation. As a result, the danger for confirmation bias can occur.
Confirmation bias can be dangerous and threaten our interpersonal relationships. Once we have an expectation about a person, or a first impression, we will try to reinforce this belief through the interactions that follow. In doing so, we can appear closed-minded, or, conversely, continue with relationships that do not serve us.
It’s important to understand and recognize confirmation bias to avoid making poor decisions and overlooking important information. Instead, it’s important to explore all potential alternatives in order to make an informed decision.
How managers can avoid confirmation bias:
- Get feedback from others. Seek out different perspectives, both inside and outside of your organization, and be open-minded to feedback.
- Use data to make decisions. Data can help you avoid making decisions based on your emotions or biases. Make sure you take all information into account and gather data from an assortment of credible resources.
- Be transparent. Share your decision-making process with others and explain how you arrived at the decision you made.
- Peak-End Effect
The peak-end effect is a behavioral bias that suggests people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (an intense moment) and at its end, rather than based on considering the total sum of the entire experience.
For example, if a project ends on a high note, you’re less likely to remember the missteps that happened along the way. Similarly, you may recall a meeting or presentation based on the most engaging or impactful part of the session (the “peak”) and how the meeting concluded at the end. A meet that ends on a positive note is more likely to leave a lasting positive impression, while a disorganized ending can overshadow the rest of the meeting.
It’s important for distributed managers to be mindful of the peak-end effect because it can influence their perception of their team’s work. In a virtual environment, perceptions of others’ work effort and time tend to be more selective and limited than in physical interactions. You may only have a few interactions or meetings a week with someone that lives far away.
This lack of visibility increases the risk of using limited information to evaluate the performance of team members.
How managers can avoid the peak-end effect:
- Keep a record. Take note of your team member’s contributions to track all accomplishments and opportunities, not just the ones that occur at the peak or end of a project.
- Seek feedback from others. Ask peers for feedback on your team member’s performance to get a more balanced perspective on an individual’s contributions.
- Be proactive. Since we tend to judge performance based on the positive or negative outcome, ask team members to share how they arrived at a specific result to understand the path and decision-making process.
Use a Snap-In Team to Identify & Mitigate Bias
Behavioral biases are a complex topic, and there is no easy solution to avoiding them. However, it’s incredibly important to be aware of the common biases, especially in a distributed team environment. This will help distributed managers improve their decision-making skills and create a more productive work environment.
Along with using the tools and advice above to promote objectivity and transparency, a snap-in team can help bridge the gap and help solve some of the biases that managers face in a distributed work environment.
A snap in team is a partner that offers a collaborative, synergistic approach to achieving unprecedented growth. (You can read all about snap-in teams, here)! Instead of operating with a “we do it for you” mentality, snap-in teams operate with a “we do it with you” approach, acting as a true partner throughout the process.
There are several ways a snap-in team can help organizations and leaders identify and mitigate bias.
For example, a snap-in team can provide managers with access to a wider range of perspectives and expertise, helping managers avoid confirmation bias and make better decisions. To help an organization avoid groupthink, a snap-in agency can help facilitate more effective brainstorming sessions by ensuring that all team members have a voice and that everyone’s ideas are considered. Finally, to help ensure that managers are evaluating team members fairly and objectively and avoid attribution bias, a snap-in team can provide training and help to develop more objective evaluation criteria.
Behavioral Biases & Distributed Teams: How Function Growth Can Help
By partnering with a snap-in team, business leaders working in a distributed work environment can take steps to understand and mitigate bias to create a more equitable and successful workplace.
Function Growth offers a unique approach to partnering with brands to find smart paths toward scale. We operate as a snap-in team and proactive partner, with shared goals and values, to help launch and scale direct-to-consumer brands. It’s a game-changer for brands aiming to thrive in today’s competitive market.
Learn more about Function Growth’s unique approach for scaling direct-to-consumer brands and get in touch with our growth experts today.