Managing Cognitive Bias to Make your World Better

My training partner Pat Bradley frequently reminds me of this important notion for leaders.

You cannot always control your first reaction to information and events.  That reaction is governed by the fact that we experience up to 50,000 thoughts a day and our brains react to them instantly employing cognitive and learned biases.  With practice we can control the second thought and the all-important First Action.

Leaders, especially in criminal justice, get invited to many fights each work day or night.  Our brain’s first and instantaneous reaction is to fight or flee.  We still have our primitive brains at work.  That is a good thing for first responders, because it’s what gets them home at the end of the shift.

Kerry Patterson and company in their book Crucial Conversations argue that humans, with “brains wired for action,” are not programmed to conduct encounters well when “the stakes rise, emotions rise and opinions vary.”  When thusly confronted , they write, “Your body is preparing to deal with an attacking sabre-toothed tiger, not your boss, subordinate, neighbor or loved one.”

We can’t change the wiring.  Our brains use cognitive biases as mental shortcuts, so we don’t have to figure out anew each time how to toast a slice of bread.  They are the ways we think fast.  But.  Such patterns become default positions.  To learn more about this read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  One such bias is the Blind Spot.  we can’t see our own faults very well.  That’s why we talk about being “stuck in traffic” instead of “I am part of the people forming a traffic jam.” We have Confirmation Bias.  We look for data and evidence that fits our pattern.  That’s why in tests police officers are good at recognizing guns in the hands of black males but not so quick to recognize guns in the hands of white females.

We can train the brain to get better at understanding the actual nature of what is in front of us, emotionally and cognitively.  Otherwise, our cognitive biases and learned biases get in the way.

The good news is that we can slow down most leadership decisions.  You get to take a few extra seconds to have that second thought and and thus a better First Action.  Indeed, one of the learnings that should be part of the transition for first responder to leader is learning how to slow things down a bit.  On helpful tool is the after action review.

We have a great models for after action work in the police field.  Special operations units, especially high-risk outfits such as bomb squads, do open, honest after action reviews as SOP.  Their lives depend on such continuous learning and improvement.  You can adapt this technique to the office.  Right in your very own head you do an OMAAR: One Minute After Action Review.

The One Minute After Action Review

  • What did I know?
  • What did I think could happen?
  • What was I trying to achieve?
  • What powers and policies were available to help make a decision?
  • What options were open to me?
  • What did I decide to do?
  • What happened as a result?
  • Would I do it the same the next time?

Finally, managing your Blind Spot bias may even make your world smell better.

A blogger goes to the doctor and says, “I have this problem with frequent gas. Fortunately, the farts never smell and are always silent. As a matter of fact, I’ve farted at least 10 times since I’ve been here, and I bet you didn’t even notice!”
The doctor says, “I see. Take these pills and come back next week.”
The next week the blogger returns. “Doctor,” he says, “I don’t know what the hell you gave me, but now my silent farts stink like the dickens.”
The doctor says, “Good! Now that we’ve cleared up your sinuses, let’s work on your hearing.”


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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