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Don’t Let Cognitive Biases Get in the Way of Being a Great Manager

This article was based on episode 108 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the episode guide when you become a member at Purchase full episode guides at Get the free mini-guide at

Cognitive biases come in a variety of formats, but they all do the same thing: lead us to think, feel, or act in ways that may not be optimal. A cognitive bias is the brain's way of quickly processing information that often leads to misconceptions or errors in judgement. While they enable us to think quickly, they do so at the expense of being accurate.

The concept was first introduced in 1972 by researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Since then there has been lots of additional research and discovery about cognitive biases and how the brain works. These learnings can help us understand why we think the way we do, and more importantly, identify when these instincts may be incorrect.

While there are dozens of cognitive biases, there are a few that can really inhibit managers from being our best selves and creating the optimal environment for our team.


The actor-observer bias says that when something negative happens to me, I blame the situation or circumstances, but when that same negative thing happens to someone else, I blame the person - their choices, behaviors, values or personality.

As an outsider looking in, we don’t see the full picture. We aren’t aware that Jim’s partner is out of town so he’s on school drop off duty for his daughter, resulting in him being late to the client meeting. We don’t know that it took Karin 4 tries before she could get the updated numbers from the finance team, causing her to send the final report 2 days late. We can’t see that Meg’s prior boss hated when she sent ‘update emails’ which conditioned her to only reach out when there was a problem.

From our external perch, it’s easy to think Jim doesn’t take this client meet seriously, that Karin was being lazy, and that Meg is a bad communicator. But in reality, these appearances are inaccurate and our interpretation is laced with negative judgments.

At the same time, if it’s us who is late to the meeting, behind on sending the report, or trying not to fill our boss’s inbox with useless updates, we think our behaviors are justified. We’re trying hard and have good intentions, but sometimes things don’t go as planned.

To avoid letting the actor-observer bias take over, pause to check in with the person and yourself. Put your own interpretations aside and simply ask what’s going on that led to the struggle, disappointment, or error. With this additional information, you can now determine the appropriate response.


The recency effect says that we tend to remember and over-weigh the most recent information latest experience we’ve had. With this fresh in our minds, we easily forget about what we’ve learned, seen, or experienced days, weeks or months ago.

This is particularly important for managers when it comes to giving annual performance reviews. Few people can actually remember what happened last week let alone 12 months ago with any sense of accuracy. Add to that the fact that whatever happened last week is most salient, and it’s easy to see how we can skew our feedback both overly positive or negative.

Instead of letting last week’s performance skew your judgement, look for trends. Consider each occurrence as only one data point in time. To help gather accurate data points, consider ways you can track behaviors, results, and growth.

Don’t rely on your intuition to tell if a team member has improved her public speaking. Make a note after each presentation about what she did well and where she still struggled. Then refer to these notes during the performance review to determine what has changed during the last period.

Even simple but strategic records can make all the difference when trying to provide truly useful feedback.


The negativity bias says we tend to register negative information and experiences more easily than positive ones, and we tend to dwell on the negative more than the positive.

We’re very good at seeing what’s wrong. We notice mistakes, problems, issues and barriers. We don’t always notice when things are good, running steadily and working well. As managers, our brains are wired to spot errors in work products or be disappointed by team members’ behavior. We’re less likely to pay attention to the fact that there aren’t any mistakes or the team member is acting exactly how we hoped. The result is that we tend to share more criticism than praise and forget about celebrating wins large and small.

To counter the negativity bias, we need to make an effort to focus on what is good. It takes concentration to notice that people are trying hard. Once you see the positives, it’s important to share praise, gratitude and appreciation.

Incorporating a daily gratitude practice can help you build the cognitive muscles to more easily notice the positives. Setting calendar reminders to share brief words of appreciation is also a helpful tactic. It’s also meaningful to celebrate wins as a team, even if those wins are simply that everyone made it through the Zoom meeting without a child or dog or spouse interrupting them.


Cognitive dissonance is the mental conflict of holding two opposing beliefs at the same time or seeing the disconnect between two things that are true for you but don’t logically make sense together.

We don’t like it when we feel like we’re being disingenuous or that others are seeing us as being inauthentic. We think and act in ways aligned with our beliefs and values. But on occasion, there is a disconnect. If we notice it ourselves, it can elicit feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, or constructive discontent. This can lead us to make positive changes to better match our behaviors with our beliefs.

But if the disconnect is pointed out to us, we are likely to respond with defensiveness, rationalizations and frustration as we try to close the gap without actually having to change. In these moments, the brain naturally wants to cling to the idea that we’ve been aligned all along and it’s the other person who doesn’t understand, is demanding too much, or misinterpreting the situation.

Regardless of how you become aware of the disconnect, cognitive dissonance will drive you to alleviate the discomfort. To do so, you could change your behavior to be more aligned with your beliefs, hold strong to your prior state and invalidate others’ perceptions, or decide to modify or let go of a belief that isn’t serving you.

When we experience cognitive dissonance, we want to resolve it and the stronger the dissonance and the more important the belief, the more it irks us. To reduce opportunities for cognitive dissonance, be clear about who you are and what’s important to you. Assess your own behaviors and ask for feedback to make sure your ‘walk’ matches your ‘talk’. When you have moments of defensiveness, pause and ask what about this is so uncomfortable? Before you discount the opinions of others, consider if this is an opportunity for you to better align your outward behaviors with your inward values.

Get the free mini-guide for this episode at Get the full episode guide when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at Or, purchase an individual episode guide at to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.

This article was based on episode 108 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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