How to Deal with Cognitive Biases That Hinder Collaboration

By Ben Linders

People are hardwired to instantly decide who we trust, but also to work collaboratively in small groups. Cognitive biases can get in the way of collaboration, but when you understand how these biases work and what agile practices can do to help, you are more likely to build better interpersonal relationships and create successful products, argues Linda Rising.

Linda Rising, an internationally known presenter and author, will give the opening keynote at GOTO Berlin 2016. InfoQ will cover this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

Agile practices such as daily stand- ups and retrospectives encourage people to work together. Having an "agile mindset" can help us to overcome biases and stereotyping. According to Rising, the essence of agile is learning together which is true collaboration.

InfoQ interviewed Linda Rising about how people are hardwired to decide who they trust and don’t trust, how cognitive biases can hinder collaboration in agile teams and how to deal with those biases, and how agile and working together help us in dealing with stereotyping and other biases.

InfoQ: At GOTO Berlin you will talk about how people are hardwired to decide who they trust and don’t trust. How does this work?

Linda Rising: For tens of thousands of years, humans depended on fast decisions that often meant life or death. Should I eat this? Is that a snake or a stick? Is that animal or person a friend or a foe? Since the ancient humans who were successful at these important decisions eventually produced us, we inherited the talent for quick decision making. This talent is unconscious. It is often correct in that it helps us navigate an increasingly complex environment without a lot of effort. The problem with this talent is that it is sometimes wrong and since we were unaware of how we reached the conclusion, it’s hard for us to un-do it. In fact, we also have the hardwired ability to reinforce these unconsciously arrived at decisions. We tend to only see evidence for them. This unconscious reinforcing is called the confirmation bias.

InfoQ: How can cognitive biases hinder collaboration in agile teams?

Rising: When we meet anyone, our unconscious mind quickly decides whether the new person is likeable, intelligent, trustworthy. A whole host of attributes are assigned in the first few seconds of our introduction. As I noted above, once we have "made up our minds" it’s really, really hard to change it. This is especially true for managers or others with power to hire, fire, or promote. Research has shown that these managerial decisions are made long before any real performance has been seen. If we have already decided that the new guy is a stupid jerk, and thereafter we only look for evidence to back up our evaluation, we’re not going to see anything that negates our belief. We will only see poor performance. That can definitely get in the way of collaboration.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions to deal with those biases?

Rising: A few years ago I gave a talk about the "agile mindset." The talk was based on the research of Carol Dweck who showed that those who believe that talent, intelligence, and ability are fixed (you have what you’re born with and there’s nothing you can do about it) are quicker to judge and hold onto those judgements more severely. People who believe that, yes, of course, you are born with certain talents and abilities, but no matter what those talents and abilities are, you can always, with deliberate practice, improve. You can grow those talents and abilities. This "growth" or "agile mindset" makes a huge difference in the quick decision making we do. We are a bit slower in judgement of others and hold those beliefs less strongly when we lean toward the "agile mindset." This is the best way I know of to encourage less stereotyping of others and to reduce biases in general.

InfoQ: How can agile help us to deal with stereotyping and other biases?

Rising: Having an "agile mindset" is the first step to overcoming biases and stereotyping, but as I describe in the research in the keynote, working together in small teams on projects that require participation from everyone is also effective. It seems we are hardwired to stereotype and make quick judgements but we are also hardwired to work collaboratively in small groups. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. You can appreciate that we spent a lot of time living and working in small groups where our lives depended on the contribution of everyone, even children and older members. Everyone had a job to do and knew that it was important. This dependency enables mutual respect and trust. It is the ultimate safe environment where we are accepted for what we can do and are encouraged to grow as we are able. This not only counterbalances our quick judgements and stereotyping of others but has probably been the secret to our evolutionary success. We can work together in small groups to change the world.

Many of the agile practices encourage this working together. The daily stand-up brings us together at least once a day where we share what work we have accomplished and where we need help. Retrospectives allow us to look back and learn so that going forward we build on successes and account for things that didn’t work so well. The notion of small experiments is something I’ve been focused on lately. I encourage teams to come to retrospectives, not with problems, but with ideas for small experiments to run in the next iteration. The experimental mindset is akin to the agile mindset and leads team members to be open to learning and improvement. Working with users and customers and testers and business people gives developers a chance to see what contributions these valuable others make. When we put a name and a face to a contribution, we begin to appreciate what others do for our products. Agile teams are more diverse and research shows that diversity not only bring more creativity and innovation but also more collaboration and trust. It seems that the heart, the essence of agile is about learning together. That’s true collaboration.

InfoQ: Where can people go if they want to learn more about dealing with cognitive biases?

Rising: At the top of my list is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Next, anything by Dan Ariely. Both have not only written books and articles but have interesting TED talks as well. I also recommend Richard Thaler’s work with the Behavioural Insights Team in the U.K. I listen to a number of great podcasts: You are Not So Smart with David McRaney (who has written two awesome books) and The Psychology Podcast with Scott Barry Kaufmann. These are all good places to start and they will help anyone begin an adventure in cognitive neuroscience!

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