Cognitive bias affects everyone from receptionists to those working in management. Perhaps that's why there’s been a lot written about cognitive biases in the last decade. If you walk into the Psychology section of Barnes of Noble or browse Amazon for “decision-making,” you’re sure to see a library of books on how irrational humans can be.

These human flaws, or biases, are fun to learn about; it can be amusing and informative to discover things about the way individuals may operate. One of the most common cognitive biases that humans face is known as confirmation bias.

Confirmation Bias in the Workplace

Anyone who has ever been in a decision-making meeting knows this bias well. Confirmation bias is the human tendency to search for, favor, and use information that confirms one’s pre-existing views on a certain topic. It goes by other names, as well: cherry-picking, my-side bias, or just insisting on doing whatever it takes to win an argument. 

Confirmation bias is dangerous for many reasons—most notably because it leads to flawed decision-making.

An Example of Confirmation Bias in Business

Imagine a business considering launching a new product. The CEO has an idea for the “next big thing,” so he directs his team to conduct market research to explore its feasibility. The team then carries out surveys, focus groups, and competitive analyses with this in mind.

Here’s where the confirmation bias comes in: First, the CEO is using market research as a sham to confirm his preconceived beliefs about a product idea. He’s not letting data do the talking. Next, the team is launching into the product development process knowing what their boss wants. As a result, the questions they craft will likely be biased to give him the answers he wants. While this is a hypothetical scenario, it’s all too common for companies to do this today.

How Can You Avoid Confirmation Bias?

How can you, as a business leader, combat confirmation bias? Consider these three steps to avoiding confirmation bias in business.

1. Ask Neutral Questions

Taking a page out of a statistics textbook may actually be helpful in minimizing confirmation bias. When gathering data, it’s important to remember that the question you ask and your method of measurement will have an impact on your results.

When conducting a survey, for example, the data you receive depends on the questions you ask. And the questions you ask depend on what answer you want to get. Make sure to craft unbiased questions and have an objective third-party vet your survey before releasing it.

Instead of asking, “Do you think [x] is a good idea for a product? Would you be interested?” ask consumers to rank product features in the form of a conjoint analysis to discover their preferences.

2. Play Devil's Advocate

Another option would be to appoint someone on your team to play the role of a “devil’s advocate” when a big decision needs to be made. A devil’s advocate is someone who takes a position they don’t necessarily agree with for the sake of debate. Does your company create dissent in its decision-making process?

Related: 7 Ways to Become a Better Manager

3. Rethink the Hiring Process

Confirmation bias is the culprit behind many regrettable hiring decisions. Think about a traditional hiring process. A hiring manager typically sits down with candidates and asks them to sell themselves. If HR likes the candidate, they might give them a softball question about weaknesses to knock out of the park, just to assure themselves that they’re going with the right person. If all goes well, they then proceed to ask the applicant to provide references.

How much negative or even neutral information do you think is revealed about the candidate in this process? Probably little to none. For many companies, the whole process is nothing more than a series of confirmatory checkboxes on the way to hiring the wrong person. And the result? Employee turnover and big headaches.

A better way would be to structure the interview process completely around disconfirming evidence. For example, posing the question, "Why aren’t you the person for this job?” Or, “What did you hate about your last job?" Ask references for contact information of other employees that the individual worked with. They’re much more likely to provide an objective perspective on their work.

Related: How to Communicate Organizational Change

Learn More about Management Essentials

Overcoming Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is extremely difficult to overcome, in both our personal and professional lives. No one likes to admit they’re wrong, instead trying to find evidence to prove the path they’re pursuing is right. But through some of the strategies above, you, as a manager, can stir up debate and ask some of the tough questions necessary to become a more rational and successful organization.

In addition to confirmation bias, several other biases commonly befall organizations, including over-confidence and the fundamental attribution error. Learning more about becoming an effective manager can help you overcome these common pitfalls and increase your organization’s effectiveness.

Are you interested in elevating your managerial approach? Explore our eight-week online course Management Essentials and gain the skills and strategies needed to excel in decision-making, implementation, organizational learning, and change management.

This post was updated on August 26, 2019. It was originally published on August 18, 2016.

Patrick Healy

About the Author

Pat served as a member of the HBS Online Course Delivery Team and worked on the Economics for Managers course for the Credential of Readiness (CORe) program, Management Essentials, and Negotiation Mastery. Pat holds a B.A. in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College. In his free time, he enjoys playing tennis and strumming the guitar.