Cognitive Biases and
Workplace Decision-Making

Most of us don't realize how many decisions we make every day, because we make so many decisions outside our awareness. And most of us believe that when we make decisions, we make rational decisions. Not so. Cognitive biases are tricks of the mind that help us make decisions more quickly — and often, less rationally. We can improve decision quality by becoming more aware of our decisions and more aware of cognitive biases.

For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. Awareness and use of information about cognitive biases is an important part of effective project management. This program offers thorough coverage and timely examples, including ways to deal with cognitive biases in board decisions about organizational strategy. — Helen Cooke, PMI Fellow Some people are called "decision makers" and they do indeed make decisions. But what many don't realize is that the rest of us make decisions constantly — and these decisions do matter. When you're choosing a name for a variable or subroutine while writing a program, or choosing your words while talking to a customer, or participating in a debate at a meeting, or writing an agenda or invitation list for a meeting, or even deciding what to do next, you're making decisions.

We tend to believe that, for the most part, we make our decisions rationally. We admit that when stressed or hurried, we might not make our most rational decisions, but otherwise, we decide rationally.

That is a mistaken belief.

Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making

Cognitive biases affect our decision-making. Limiting those effects begins with understanding cognitive biases.

Very few of our decisions are purely rational. Almost all decisions are subject to a range of non-rational influences that psychologists call cognitive biases. They affect the quality of our decisions, and most of the time, we're unaware of their influence.

In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner serves as a guide through the fascinating world of cognitive biases. He introduces the concept and surveys some of the more common cognitive biases, showing how they can affect the decisions we make at work. And most important, he gives concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases on those decisions.

After you're introduced to this vital and still-growing field of knowledge, you'll have more awareness of the limitations of your decision-making practices. You'll learn how to improve them by dealing with the effects of cognitive biases, and you'll learn how to structure group decision making to improve the quality of decisions your teams make.

This program helps people who make decisions. As it turns out, that's just about everyone in the knowledge-oriented workplace. Participants learn:

  • What a cognitive bias is
  • What differentiates cognitive biases from bigotry
  • How some specific cognitive biases are defined, how they distort decisions, and what can be done to avoid that distortion
  • How to recognize what kinds of decisions are susceptible to which cognitive biases
  • How cognitive biases affect group decisions
  • How to check for cognitive biases
  • How to distinguish cognitive biases from groupthink
  • How to organize the "cognitive bias zoo"
  • How to recognize the devious uses of cognitive biases for manipulating decisions
  • How to prevent manipulative use (abuse) of cognitive biases

Participants learn to appreciate the true challenges of dealing with cognitive biases. Most important, they learn strategies and tactics for limiting their effects, or, having discovered that a cognitive bias might be playing a role, how to intervene to enhance decision quality.

Program structure and content

We learn through presentation, discussion, exercises, simulations, and post-program activities. We can tailor a program for you that addresses your specific challenges, or we can deliver a tried-and-true format that has worked well for other clients. Participants usually favor a mix of presentation, discussion, and focused exercises. This program is available as a keynote or breakout.

Based on attendee interest, topics will include, for example:

  • What a cognitive bias is
  • Definitions of specific cognitive biases
  • How cognitive biases affect decision making in various domains, for example:
    • Conversation
    • Debate
    • Requirements analysis
    • Policy development
    • Performance evaluation
    • Design
  • Recognizing the effects of cognitive biases
  • Interventions
  • Educating teams about cognitive biases
  • Next steps: strategies for applying what you've learned about cognitive biases

Whether you're a veteran of workplace decision making, or a relative newcomer, this program is a real eye-opener.

Learning model

When we learn most new skills, we intend to apply them in situations with low emotional content. But knowledge about how people work together is most needed in highly charged situations. That's why we use a learning model that goes beyond presentation and discussion — it includes in the mix simulation, role-play, metaphorical problems, and group processing. This gives participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations. And it's a lot more fun for everybody.

Target audience

Decision makers at all levels, including managers of global operations, sponsors of global projects, business analysts, team leads, project managers and team members.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

Related articles

Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactanceCognitive Biases and Influence: II
Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases.
An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeCognitive Biases and Influence: I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Louis Pasteur in 1885Wishful Significance: II
When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerWishful Significance: I
When things don't work out, and we investigate why, we sometimes attribute our misfortune to "wishful thinking." In this part of our exploration of wishful thinking we examine how we arrive at mistaken assessments of the significance of what we see, hear, or learn.
Darrelle Revis, cornerback in the U.S. National Football LeagueWishful Interpretation: II
Wishful "thinking," as we call it, can arise in different ways. One source is the pattern of choices we make when we interpret what we see, what we hear, or any other information we receive. Here's Part II of an inventory of ways our preferences and wishes affect how we interpret the world.
Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010Wishful Interpretation: I
Wishful thinking comes from more than mere imagination. It can enter when we interpret our own observations or what others tell us. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways our wishes affect how we interpret the world.
The U.S. F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter lifts off for its first training sortie March 6, 2012, at Eglin Air Force Base, FloridaWishful Thinking and Perception: II
Continuing our exploration of causes of wishful thinking and what we can do about it, here's Part II of a little catalog of ways our preferences and wishes affect our perceptions.
The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976, compared to the MGS image taken in 2001Wishful Thinking and Perception: I
How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
Eugene F. Kranz, flight director, at his console on May 30, 1965, in the Control Room in the Mission Control Center at HoustonDesign Errors and Group Biases
Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchDesign Errors and Groupthink
Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion diskWhy Scope Expands: II
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut in January 1955Why Scope Expands: I
Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction, has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo, professional tango coupleScope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
A visual illusionScope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition for Mars Climate OrbiterConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management processes.
World global temperature departuresConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
A glass of red wineI've Been Right All Along
As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'Self-Serving Bias in Organizations
We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.

Photo credit: barefootliam.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
What People Say About Rick's Programs
  • "Rick is a dynamic presenter who thinks on his feet to keep the material relevant to the group."
    — Tina L. Lawson, Technical Project Manager, BankOne (now J.P. Morgan Chase)
  • "Rick truly has his finger on the pulse of teams and their communication."
    — Mark Middleton, Team Lead, SERS
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.