Bias, God and pitching…

(… or, how to pitch smarter through an appreciation of your cognitive biases)

I was intrigued by an article I came across recently that examined how our biases impact our imagined idea of the face of God. The sub-title to the article which you can read here was:

“Cognitive bias is in all human thoughts. Even mental images of God.”

Our understanding of cognitive bias is still developing, but there is no doubting the significance of better understanding how our biases impact our behaviour and decision-making. Twice in recent years, the Nobel Prize for Economics has been awarded to researchers into cognitive bias: Daniel Kahneman in 2002, and Richard Thaler in 2017.

Our biases are many, and if you want to see just how extensive they are, check this chart on Wikipedia. Mind blowing!

And the biggest challenge of bias? You can’t really beat bias.

Researchers suggest that our biases are so deeply ingrained that the best we can hope for is to limit the impact of our biases in a given situation, by being consciously aware that bias may be present.

Bias is so pervasive that the impacts are everywhere, though perhaps the biggest impacts are on how we frame conversations; how we listen (or do not listen!); and how we put forward ideas and decisions.

Consider this common pitching scenario. You bid for a piece of work where you’ve done similar work before. You meet the prospect, prepare your bid, present your solution (which you know is the best), but you don’t win. You contact the prospect and they tell you that your bid was very comprehensive but your price was too high. You tell yourself, that the prospect did not really know what they wanted.

What role could bias have played in this series of events?

  • As soon as you acknowledge that you’ve seen a similar situation before, your biases kick-in. You tend to move the conversation in the direction of your goals and preferences, missing opportunities to widen the discussion and learn the full story. You miss key information, because you do not ask broad questions and do not listen fully.
  • You listen for words that reinforce your established perceptions and you lend extra weight to those words while discounting opposing views, telling yourself that those with opposing views do not properly understand the situation or lack the experience to see clearly.
  • When you prepare your bid, you use your previous and similar bid as a template. In discussions with your colleagues, they all agree with you that this solution worked before and will work well now.
  • When you present your solution, you focus on the chairperson who smiles at you encouragingly and nods when you speak. You ignore the blank faces.
  • In the Q&A, you direct your answers to the chairperson.
  • When the decision comes in, you and the team tell yourself that the prospect did not understand the value of your solution.

The common biases evident in this series of events include:

  • Confirmation bias – our tendency to process new information in a way that fits our pre-existing view of a topic or situation. This in turn stops us listening fully and openly.
  • Groupthink bias – where we defer to the opinions of colleagues (typically those more senior or seen as experts) because we do not want to separate ourselves from the group.
  • Liking bias – where we focus on the person we like, ignoring those who are less attractive or who do not respond to us (but who may hold significant influence).
  • The Curse of Knowledge – where our explanations appear simple and obvious to us, but are much less clear and obvious to others.
  • Self-serving bias – where our natural defences seek to put the blame on forces other than ourselves (e.g. pricing, lack of understanding) and prevent us learning from our mistakes.
  • Blind-spot bias – where we see biases in other’s behavior, but not in our own!

If we cannot mitigate our biases, we do not listen properly; we follow familiar and comfortable paths of thought; and we put forward ideas without considering multiple perspectives. We risk missing opportunities and making poor decisions.

So, what to do? Here are three practical suggestions:

1. Learn to pause (yes, you can do it!), whenever you’re about to make a judgement or decision and review your decision or judgment criteria.

2. Force yourself to look at situations from different perspectives. Ask yourself multiple “What-if” questions.

e.g. What if we left things as they are?

What if we chose A instead B? What would option C look like?

I wonder which option person Z would choose – and why?

What might change that would impact our choice of A, B or C?

3. Listen patiently and carefully. The LISTEN acronym can help with this. Maybe write the characters of LISTEN on the corner of pages you use to take notes – as a defence against your unconscious biases.

If you’d like to learn more about bias, you can watch our short video highlighting confirmation bias. You might also like to read Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational or Daniel Kahneman’s more academic book Thinking Fast, and Slow.

Thanks for reading and do please like this article and share with others.

David Lambert is co-author of Smarter Selling, the best-selling book published by Financial Times, available in seven languages.

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