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
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Read more about self-serving bias at Wikipedia.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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