Action bias is the need and compulsion to do something.
Lydia Cohen, an American social media executive based in Abu Dhabi, found a different way to explain action bias. After a bout of headaches, cold and coughs that went on for a week, she once visited a doctor. She explained her symptoms to him, and he instantly insisted that she should do a battery of tests. After an endless stream of tests, that also included an MRI, everything was found to be normal. Annoyed, Cohen visited another doctor who said that she had just caught a bad flu. He provided her with new medicines, and she recovered in two days. “The first doctor clearly lost to the action bias and panicked, making me anxious in the long run,” she says, laughing about the experience now.
That’s what action bias is. It refers to people’s impulse to act, even when there’s no indication that doing so will benefit them. It isn’t based on logical thinking and evaluation. “It can be a double-edged sword for leaders,” says Sarmistha Mitra, a wellness expert and founder of the Wellbeing Sanctuary for Balanced Life. “On one hand, it demonstrates decisiveness and can instill confidence among team members. It can also help leaders overcome organisational inertia. However, unchecked action bias may lead to impulsive decisions and unnecessary stress,” she says.
Action bias can be a double-edged sword for leaders. On one hand, it demonstrates decisiveness and can instill confidence among team members. It can also help leaders overcome organisational inertia. However, unchecked action bias may lead to impulsive decisions and unnecessary stress
It could also lead to reckless decision-making and eventually disaster is on the horizon, explains Robert Stewart, a Dubai-based business psychologist and executive coach.
Why do people engage in action bias?
Another simple example would be a penalty shootout during a football match. Quite often, as the player is about to make their final kick, the goalie keeps shifting around in the goalpost trying to anticipate which side the ball could go, instead of staying still. Owing to the tension as the match’s outcome rests on their shoulders, the goalie chooses their action before they can observe the kick direction. And, quite often, they fail to save the goal.
It’s a psychological phenomenon, and not a random occurrence. “It is more of an unconscious, automated habit, rather than a conscious choice, hence the term ‘bias’. As with all biases, action bias is a strength in some environments and a weakness in others,” says David Godfrey, a peak performance mentor and co-director of Chase Life Consulting. “Whether action bias is an asset or not has more to do with the hidden motivations underneath,” he says.
It is more of an unconscious, automated habit, rather than a conscious choice, hence the term ‘bias’. As with all biases, action bias is a strength in some environments and a weakness in others..
Elaborating on why people choose to engage in action bias, he says, “They feel the need to decide things very quickly and with an overt display of confidence. Others will make decisions quickly because they crave a sense of certainty and completion."
When they’re confronted with a decision or a problem, people feel unsettled, agitated and uncomfortable, he says. “These people will make decisions quickly, not because that’s the best decision, but because they are unable to tolerate the discomfort that comes from sitting with a problem,” says Godfrey. They will take immediate steps, when faced with unsettling circumstances and under pressure. It’s also a temporary fix, as it momentarily helps in reducing anxiety levels and gives them the appearance of being decisive and assertive.
It’s also a kind of conditioning. We’re trained to believe that inaction and exercising restraint is unproductive. “From the conception of society, productivity is measured by action. Productive and active people are also favoured by their peers. So, naturally there has been an inclination to favour action over inaction even on a psychological level,” adds Mitra.
For instance, how often have you attempted to drive on a different route because you saw that your normal one was packed with cars? You’ll take the unfamiliar road, even though you’re unsure. You’ll spend more time and gas but at least you feel that you’re actually moving somewhere. You did something, even if it wasn’t a great idea.
How to wisely employ action bias
It’s about striking a balance.
While bias towards action can be beneficial for everyday tasks and maintaining productivity, it's essential to exercise caution when applying it to significant decisions, explains Mitra.
Big decisions require careful consideration, planning, and sometimes, deliberate non-action or patience. So, you need to strike a balance between action and non-action, depending on the context. “It’s an important aspect of effective decision-making, and achieving long-term success,” she adds. In fact, it can be an instructive tool for leaders when employed well.
Here’s how you engage in meaningful action bias at work:
Stewart also highlights the importance for healthy dissent and discussion in the workspace, when it comes to harnessing action bias. “The reason action bias can be so damaging, is if perspectives are missed where the desire for action leads to a narrowed perspective.” In order to alleviate this, leaders and managers should invite dissent and discussions from the team, which is often called devil’s advocate or black hat thinking. “As they openly invite this, they must also reward and acknowledge this when it occurs to ensure people are more comfortable doing so in the future,” he says.
The reason why action bias can be so damaging, is when perspectives are missed so the desire for action leads to a narrowed perspective. Leaders and managers should invite dissent from the team, which is often called devil's advocate or black hat thinking...
If we want to evaluate how action bias can be positive, teams need to reflect after a project or assignment and see where their action bias assisted them. “This reflection will change people's association to the action bias when it arises next time. And people will unconsciously begin to feel more comfortable leaning into future actions,” he adds. This feedback loop helps in understanding whether the decision was effective, how it could been done differently and whether action bias benefited the outcome. As they constantly assess themselves, people learn from their past experiences and enhance their approach for forthcoming challenges.
Mitra shares simple strategies:
Purposeful and planned actions: Leaders must define clear, achievable objectives, says Mitra. “Actions should align with these goals, ensuring purposeful decision-making. Clarity helps prevent impulsive choices,” she says. Leaders also need to examine and understand the motivations behind any decision. They have to ask themselves, whether the need to act is actually urgent, or is it a knee-jerk reaction. They have to cultivate a sense of self-awareness, and be aware of their own emotional responses and triggers.
Informed actions: Prior to acting, leaders should assess risks and gather relevant information. A well-informed decision is more likely to yield favourable results than a hastily made one. If you want to make sure that decisions are not made hastily, step back and reflect. By doing this, you consider alternatives and invite inputs from others. You also weigh the pros and cons of each decision.
Delegated overview: Leaders can delegate certain tasks to team members, allowing them to act while maintaining overview This not only distributes the workload, but also reduces stress for the leader.
Flexibility: Leaders should remain open to adapting their approach based on feedback and changing.
Action bias for learning through experience: Think of an entrepreneur starting a business. Their action bias leads them to experiment with various marketing strategies. Through hands-on experience, they learn what works best for their target audience, improving their decision-making and marketing skills over time.
Action bias for innovation and creativity: Imagine a research and development team in a tech company. Encouraged by action bias, they continually test and iterate on new ideas. This approach sparks innovation and creativity, leading to groundbreaking products and solutions.
Action bias for motivation and confidence: Picture a sports coach. By taking action to fine-tune training methods and tactics, they achieve significant victories. These victories boost the team's confidence, motivating them to perform at their best, consistently.