Self-serving bias is an example of a cognitive bias, which is the human tendency to make systematic errors based on thought-related factors rather than evidence. Cognitive biases are detectable by comparing the judgments people make when they are inside a given situation to the judgments they make when assessing the same situation from outside.
Self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute our success and triumph to our own skills and talents, and our failures to situational factors or to the actions (or inactions) of others.
As a humorous example, self-serving bias is probably the reason why all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.
Here are examples illustrating how self-serving bias affects organizational decision-making.
- Lessons learned exercises
- In lessons-learned or after-action exercises, teams are subject to self-serving bias, and its related group form, group-serving bias. These biases create a tendency to attribute to external factors anything that went wrong, while attributing to the team's own deeds and abilities anything that went right.
- Risk plans
- To some extent, Bureaucratic controls tend to
control the managed more
effectively than they
control managersacknowledging risk entails acknowledging vulnerability. Self-serving bias makes us more likely to acknowledge risks related to external situational factors than we are to acknowledge risks arising from our own shortcomings, our team's shortcomings, or shortcomings in our plans.
- Security systems
- Because self-serving bias can make us reluctant to acknowledge internal security threats, systems tend to be better defended against external threats than they are against threats from within.
- Bureaucratic controls
- Since bureaucratic controls are designed to meet the goals of management, self-serving bias leads to emphasis on employees who are managed, rather than the managers themselves. Bureaucratic controls tend to control the managed more effectively than they control managers.
- Performance bonuses and layoffs
- When bonuses are distributed in outsized proportions to those who determine the distribution pattern, many see this as a manifestation of simple greed. But self-serving bias almost certainly plays a role, because it tends to make those who determine the distribution pattern attribute more of the organization's success to themselves than to others. Conversely, when layoffs and cost reductions hit harder those people of the organization most removed from decision-making, self-serving bias probably plays a role as well.
- In negotiations, self-serving bias creates risk of impasse because each party tends to overvalue arguments in its favor, and undervalue arguments in favor of their negotiating partners.
An intervention that can at least temporarily reduce the effects of self-serving bias begins with informing the decision-makers of cognitive biases in general, and specifically self-serving bias. Second, the decision-makers are directed to compile lists of contra-biasing insights — ways in which their own performance has contributed or could contribute to depressed performance, and ways in which the performance of others has contributed or could contribute to enhanced performance. It might be a good idea for all of us to meditate on that now and then. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Read more about self-serving bias at Wikipedia.
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrennqaTmxouGondrYMOner@ChacQyOjBQoGrDlEJPDYoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Give It Your All
- If you have the time and resources to read this, you probably have a pretty good situation, or you have
what it takes to be looking for one. In many ways, you're one of the fortunate few. Are you making the
most of the wonderful things you have? Are you giving it your all?
- Discussion Distractions: II
- Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most
common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- When It's Just Not Your Job
- Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness
making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
- The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
- The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility
in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
- The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste
- Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of
the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities
just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
- And on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenQcXZMUIyiUtkPYvkner@ChacqrCBYhQgSNFGIitGoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.