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Techniques to Overcome Biases

By Daniel Butcher
November 1, 2019
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After pinpointing biases, professionals must take concrete steps to encourage ethical conduct and discourage poor decision making.

 

Identifying judgment traps and biases embedded within your organization—and yourself—is an important first step in preventing unethical behavior. But once you’ve pinpointed potential sources or triggers, what’s the next step? It can be difficult to know what to do specifically to avoid judgment traps and overcome your organization’s or your own biases to ensure ethicality. It isn’t enough to recognize that you and your colleagues hold biases but believe that you’ll behave ethically regardless: You must put theory into practice and take specific, concrete steps to encourage ethical conduct and discourage poor decision making.

 

 

In the April 2019 Ethics column, we grappled with the puzzling question, “Why do good people do bad things in the workplace?” (bit.ly/2AWxS9L). Then in the August 2019 column, we offered tips to identify judgment traps and your own biases (bit.ly/35fwbSY). Once you’ve done that, it’s time to take action and employ specific mitigation techniques to practice ethical decision making and contribute to developing your organization’s ethical work culture.

 

OVERCOMING BIASES

 

Recommended mitigation techniques include following your gut and moral compass when going through a difficult decision-making process. Cathy Allen, founder of Audit Conduct, says professionals shouldn’t rush to judgment when faced with a thorny situation.

 

“Though challenging, I think we need to slow down and take a deep breath before making important ethical decisions,” Allen says. “Step away for a moment, consider the big picture, including the many angles presented, and when appropriate, seek counsel, keeping in mind any confidentiality constraints.”

 

Robert Biskup, a managing director in the regulatory, forensic, and compliance practices of Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory and the former chief compliance officer of Ford Motor Co., says professionals must force themselves to be reminded of what their various subconscious biases are.

 

“It’s something that we have to constantly pay attention to and refresh our understanding of professional ethics—we can’t just learn the code of ethics once and put it out of our mind,” Biskup says. “It has to be learned and learned again as part of our maintenance of our professional excellence.”

 

Another important point from an organizational perspective is scrutinizing how goal setting and performance management are conducted since the way employees are compensated and incentivized plays a big role in driving their behaviors.

 

“If you’re communicating to your sales force, ‘Deliver these numbers or you’re all going to be fired,’ that can cause good people to do bad things or cross lines that they ordinarily would not,” Biskup says.

 

“Management has a right and an expectation to drive performance and accountability throughout the organization, but you must hold people to high performance standards in a way that doesn’t cause people to think it’s okay to cross ethical lines,” he adds. “It can be tricky to strike that balance.”

 

It’s helpful to have a trusted colleague or peer at another organization with whom you can discuss problematic situations or decisions with ethical gray areas. Don’t pick a confidant based on who is likeliest to think like you and agree with you.

 

“One of the biggest challenges as you rise in an organization is the more power you have, the more likely you’ll be surrounded by people who will never tell you no—[subordinates] often won’t tell you when you’re making a bad decision,” says Patricia Harned, the chief executive officer of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI).

 

“Having people who’ll tell you the truth is critical—someone who’s courageous enough to tell you ‘that’s not a good plan’ is really useful, but if those are in short supply, you can call a whistleblower hotline or helpline and ask for guidance,” Harned says.

 

ETHICS ADVICE

 

Ann Tenbrunsel, the David E. Gallo Professor of Business Ethics in the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, offers seven mitigation techniques to avoid judgment traps and overcome biases:

 

  1. On a regular basis, realistically assess whether you’re living up to your values.
  2. Anticipate upcoming situations where your values might be challenged. Recognize that you’re biased in thinking you’ll always live up to your values, as you often won’t. Identify the motivations that may drive you to behave unethically at decision time (e.g., fear, desire for social approval, and greed) and how you’ll address them.
  3. Make sure you approach important decisions when you aren’t multitasking or exhausted. We’re more likely to make unethical decisions if we aren’t at our full capacity.
  4. If you anticipate a difficult conversation that may challenge your values, then practice what you’ll say.
  5. Emphasize the importance of being ethical to those around you. If others think you’re moral, then they’ll be less likely to ask you to do something unethical.
  6. You conform to the morals of those around you, so associate with professionals whose morals you respect.
  7. Don’t be afraid to dissent from the group if it’s making an unethical decision. It’s often the case that others want to dissent as well but are afraid. If you voice concerns, then that makes it easier for them to do the same.

 

Steven Mintz, a professor emeritus of accounting at California Polytechnic State University, urges professionals to be skeptical and diligent in gathering and assessing data; exercise independent thought; avoid acting hastily and skipping important procedures; be objective in evaluating the evidence; ask probing questions; and be accountable.

 

While none of these pieces of advice is earth-shattering or complicated, they’re important and easy to lose sight of when professionals are focused on their daily tasks and responsibilities. Whenever you have to make a decision that has, or could have, ethical implications, take the time to look yourself in the mirror and follow these steps to avoid judgment traps and overcome biases—whether they’re your organization’s or your own.

 

IMA ETHICS HELPLINE

 

For clarification of how the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice applies to your ethical dilemma, contact the IMA Ethics Helpline.

 

In the U.S. or Canada, dial (800) 245-1383. In other countries, dial the AT&T USA Direct Access Number from www.usa.att.com/traveler/index.jsp, then the above number.

 

The IMA Helpline is designed to provide clarification of provisions in the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice, which contains suggestions on how to resolve ethical conflicts. The helpline cannot be considered a hotline to report specific suspected ethical violations.

 

Daniel Butcher is the finance editor at IMA. You can reach him at daniel.butcher@imanet.org.
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