Managing People

by Torben Emmerling, Alessandro Paul, Daniel Seyffardt

 

In times of uncertainty and seclusion, people seek guidance and stability. In the workplace, they usually turn to their superiors. It can be hard for managers to live up to these expectations, and the task of managing people remotely is one few leaders have been prepared for. It’s harder to grasp the context in which colleagues work and live — as well as the challenges they may face — when you don’t see them regularly. All of this increases the likelihood of misunderstandings and can put additional strain on team relations. 

Research in behavioral science has taught us that we tend to simplify complex decisions by using “rules of thumb” or heuristics when we face uncertain situations. While these shortcuts allow us to work efficiently even in the face of complexity, they can quickly become the source of systematic and sometimes unconscious errors in our judgment, also known as biases. These biases are nothing new, but a remote working environment can make us especially susceptible to them. Applying a behavioral science perspective, we’ll take a closer look at five of the most important biases leaders should watch out for when working and managing remotely, plus a selection of familiar and scientifically proven tactics to counteract these misconceptions in this new context.

Confirmation Bias

Offices provided various opportunities to connect and share ideas with colleagues from different teams and functions, and receiving spontaneous feedback was easier. In a distributed working world, the threshold for less-formal exchange and requests is significantly higher, and the need for scheduling yet another call can dissuade us from requesting feedback at all. When interacting remotely, people are more likely to rely on their own judgment and forgo the critical review by others to get a job done. As a result, the danger for confirmation bias — i.e., the self-rewarding ways we search for and interpret information that confirms our beliefs and values — increases. Less exposure to different ideas and perspectives consequently increases the risk for poorer decisions.

How to counteract it:

  • Invite colleagues to individually evaluate decisions from their point of view and let them speak first before disclosing your priorities and motivations.
  • Make sure you take all information into account. Force yourself and others to gather critical and discomforting points of view, even if this can prolong the decision-making process.
  • Get yourself a devil’s advocate, tasked with challenging your perspective and testing the strength of your argumentation. A useful side effect of this approach is that it trains critical thinking within the team.

Attribution Bias

The sporadic and limited interaction in remote work environments makes it difficult to grasp team members’ individual situations. The lack of context in which they operate complicates the interpretation of important signals. Nevertheless, our brains are quick to compensate for missing information and jump to conclusions about other people’s behavior. As such, we’re easily prone to attribution bias — i.e., our ingrained tendency to disproportionately attribute the behaviors of others to their character traits rather than situational influences. Being more mindful about the particular set of circumstances other people might find themselves in, such as a medical condition or personal issue, can make us more considerate and less likely to jump to conclusions.

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How to counteract it:

  • Slow yourself down, check your evidence, and reflect. Don’t assume bad intentions, and remind yourself of the possibility you’re making false attributions.
  • To better understand your colleague’s behavior, recall situations in which you’ve exhibited a similar behavior.
  • Think of three explanations for why a particular behavior might have occurred and whether it’s generally representative of that colleague. This can work magic.

Groupthink

In meetings with many participants, attention is a scarce resource. Virtual meetings are particularly demanding, as they require us to stare at screens and carefully follow conversations to identify important information while being watched — and for a long time. As a result, employees are often less willing to speak up, voice criticism, or question decisions more closely. Consequently, individual biases are easily amplified in the group and distort the decision-making of the entire team, increasing the risk for groupthink. In general, the more people there are in a meeting, the more it’s dominated by a few individuals. The more homogeneous the team and the more draining the virtual meeting experience, the greater the risk of groupthink.

How to counteract it:

  • Pick a small and heterogeneous group, and allocate clear roles and responsibilities when you need to make an important team decision.
  • Create room for anonymous brainstorms and independent evaluations before and during team meetings. Ensure variety in speakers, roles, and topics and schedule regular breaks.
  • Use remote collaboration tools to your advantage — for example, by first encouraging critical dialogues in breakout rooms before sharing insights with the whole team. This can create safer spaces where team members feel more comfortable speaking up.

In-Group Effect

In an online-only environment, it can be more difficult for new colleagues to settle into your team. Physical distance reduces exposure to people, limits opportunities for spontaneous and informal exchanges, and diminishes communication across the organization. Virtual setups simply lack opportunities for the short but important water-cooler chats or casual cafeteria meetings. As a consequence, it can be more difficult for a team to form, bond, and cohere. This should be taken seriously, as group cohesion is positively related to team performance, and people generally exert more effort for colleagues they care about. Investing in social integration and cross-functional exchange early on can therefore have a great impact on virtual team performance down the line.

How to counteract it:

  • Bridge physical distance through regular meeting rituals. Encourage everyone to speak up and candidly share their current activities and contributions inside and outside of work.
  • Plan time for personal and professional check-ins. Actively inquire about the well-being of your colleagues beyond current work tasks, just as you would in a normal office setting.
  • Experiment with creative approaches to fostering team cohesion and performance in a safe and positive environment that provides opportunities for exchanges and bonding experiences in virtual settings.

Peak-End Effect

In a virtual context, impressions of others’ work effort and time are usually more selective and limited than in physical interactions. Meetings are almost exclusively convened to discuss results but rarely provide insight into the effort and methodology used to achieve them from home. This lack of visibility increases the risk of using isolated recent information (rather than representative information) to evaluate the performance of team members, a bias often referred to as the peak-end effect. The origin of this powerful misconception lies in our tendency to memorize the most intense moment of an experience as well as its end. It has the potential to quickly, subconsciously, and unjustifiably distort team members’ performance evaluations in a significant way.

How to counteract it:

  • Account for individual work preferences. Virtual setups allow for greater flexibility in working hours, enabling team members to work when they’re most effective. Availability is no proxy for quality.
  • Plan regular short, virtual performance evaluations — for example, 15 minutes every two weeks. Take notes in between to be able to provide a balanced and well-informed picture of the time in between sessions.
  • Actively inquire about the path to a specific result and discuss particularly positive and negative performance right away.

A change in context almost always leads to changes in behavior, and consequently also in the ways we work. Leaders are called upon to adapt to the changing situational demands and to provide guidance and stability. In this process, scientific insights about human judgment and decision-making should be taken into account to ensure the most effective team management in situations of increased uncertainty. Assessing and addressing this non-exhaustive checklist of the five key biases can help leaders on their way — not only in remote work environments, but also in their personal lives. As the saying goes, never waste a good crisis. The current one certainly has a lot to offer.