By now, most leaders – or, at least, most thinking leaders – are aware of the many cognitive biases and heuristics that we all fall victim to, no matter how smart we are, no matter how well educated we are, no matter how successful we are (if not, read Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow). But cognitive scientists have identified another category of biases that you should be just as concerned about: political biases.
Political here does not refer to the sort of partisan nonsense that is ripping representative democracies apart at the seams. Rather, it refers to organizational politics – the sort of nonsense that, if not ripping your company apart at the seams, is at least preventing your people from being as effective as they could be.
“Political bias – understood as deliberate strategic distortions – arises from power relations, instead of from cognition,” says Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg. “Cognitive bias may account well for outcomes in the simple lab experiments done by behavioral scientists. But for real-world decision-making – in big hierarchical organizations, involving office politics, salesmanship, jockeying for position and funds, including in the C-suite and ministerial offices, with millions and sometimes billions of dollars at stake – political bias is pervasive and must be taken into account.”
In a recent paper published in Project Management Journal, Flyvbjerg identifies political biases as a major challenge when it comes to major projects.
One of the worst is what he calls strategic misrepresentation: The tendency to deliberatively and systematically distort or misrepresent information in order to secure support for a project or initiative.
“Strategic misrepresentation will be particularly strong where political-organizational pressures are high … and such pressures are especially high for big, strategic projects,” he writes. “The bigger and more expensive the project, the more strategic import it is likely to have with more attention from top management and with more opportunities for political- organizational pressures to develop, other things being equal.”
The planning fallacy also comes into play in major projects. Originally identified by Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky as a cognitive bias back in the 1970s, this refers to the tendency to create forecasts and plans that are “unrealistically close to best-case scenarios.” However, Flyvbjerg says the planning fallacy can be employed intentionally as a political bias as well.
In too many cases, he says, the key to securing the funding necessary is underestimating the costs and overestimating the benefits.
Other cognitive biases can also be employed politically, including optimism bias, the base rate fallacy, anchoring bias and uniqueness bias. While uniqueness bias is usually used in reference to our innate tendency to view ourselves as a special, Flyvbjerg says project planners can also employ it consciously or unconsciously to suggest that the rules don’t apply to their project – that it will somehow succeed where similar projects have failed.
“Behavioral economics in its present form suffer from an overfocus on cognitive psychology: Economic decisions get overaccounted for in psychological terms, when other perspectives – for instance political, sociological, and organizational – may be more pertinent,” he argues. “When Kahneman and I compared notes again, we agreed the balanced position regarding real-world decision-making is that both cognitive and political biases influence outcomes.”
As a leader, you need to be on guard against both.
Originally posted on Forbes.