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<xTITLE>Cognitive Bias' in the Workplace</xTITLE>

Cognitive Bias' in the Workplace

by Monica Brown-Coleman
May 2019 Monica Brown-Coleman

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been employed by the County of Los Angeles. And through hard work and some strategic thinking, I’ve been able to become rise through the ranks and become one of the few leaders without a degree. However, as of a few years ago, I decided to invest in my career and learn more about leadership and communication. To that end, I enrolled in a degree completion program and earned my undergrad degree, a Bachelor of Science in communication. And during this time, I’ve been privileged to have established some strong working relationships. And learned the value of having professional mentors, these mentors have heavily invested in my career. And because of these relationships, I’ve made a commitment to assist my colleagues in any way possible to help them reach their career goals.

My career of two decades has allowed me to move throughout several of our public contact offices and some specialized units. And with each assignment, my goal has been to improve performance and positively impact the lives of the staff assigned to that office. With that goal in mind, I transferred to the South Bay Office, about 2 years ago.

Often when I’m assigned to a new office, I immediately notice outdated set-up’s or ineffective processes that are in need of change. This move to the South Bay Office was no different. Immediately upon arriving, I noticed the antiquated reception area and waiting room, several work-related processes in need of change to improve department performance, created a new program to better utilize our human resources, eliminate wasted time and ensure that we’re meeting the needs of the public we serve.

Over the course of twelve months meetings with division and department management were held to get the buy-in of the managers and executive team. All levels of changes were implemented, including reconstruction to half of the office to make the reception and waiting areas more welcoming to our participants. A complete renovation was done to the rest of office including, paint, carpet and decor. In addition to the aesthetics being redone, an overhaul was done to how work is completed.

In order to ensure that each employee was working optimally, process mapping was completed on the higher priority tasks and ultimately a new process was constructed for all staff to follow. In addition, to ensure that each colleague was working exhaustively to positively impact the lives of the public we serve, checks and balances were put in place for the supervisors to monitor the quality and quantity of work produced.

In addition, a professional development program was started within the division. Staff that were interesting in trying to promote were offered the opportunity to complete mock interviews, go through a test preparation training session and various leadership development meetings. The aim was to provide out colleagues with professional development opportunities, increase engagement and reiterate the departments goals.

Just as we started to see results in both the improved physical appearance of the office and the improved performance in the monthly business reports, a cloud of negativity started to permeate the air of the office.


And in June an anonymous letter was sent to the Deputy Director of our department regarding a series of complaints against the management of our division. The letter enumerated a list of 10 complaints, including; lack of parties, managers not speaking to staff, not being allowed to have individual coffee pots in their cubicles, not being allowed to have division-wide holiday celebrations and an overall lack of morale in the office. The letter was penned by one of the union representatives, at the request of ten staff members.

Based on the anonymous letter, the department’s Director Vince Dean (name changed to respect the privacy of the individual), scheduled a meeting with the union representative and the ten staff members. However, prior to the meeting beginning the union representative walked around the office asking all the 150 staff members if they had an ought against the division management. And based on her conversations she was able to add 4 staff to the ten original complainants.

From my office, I had a bird’s eye view of these 14 employees silently walking into the conference room along with the union representative into this closed door meeting to lodge complaints about me, my two colleagues and our immediate supervisor.

Unconsciously, I kept looking at the door, wondering what was being said. Wondering if the discussion was about me. Wondering how it was possible that they had so much to say, that caused the meeting to last for two and a half hours. And when the meeting concluded, the participants walked out of the room with a look of exhaustion, some disheveled, some wiping tears and some smirking. It was clear that the conversation exceeded discussion of parties and coffee pots. There was something more emotion driven and raw that occurred during that meeting. And more importantly to me at that moment, none of the managers were there to offer a defense of any accusations leveled against us.

After the meeting with the staff, Vince called the division managers into a meeting to discuss his interaction with those staff members. As we sat around the table, the tension in the air was palpable. We were all anxiously waiting to hear the feedback from our leader.

Vince took a deep breath, looked around the table and slowly began speaking. Because I’ve known him for over twenty years, I could tell that what he was about to say was causing him some great distress. But as the leader that I know and respect, I knew that he would continue, even in the face of adversity.

He began by advising us that some of the things he would be saying are going to be hard for us to hear. He went on to say that it appeared the most prominent complaint made was that there were too many women in the division’s management team. I sat in my seat shocked and slightly bewildered, since all 15 of my colleagues that went in that closed-door meeting with Vince, including the union representative, were women. As I sat there almost paralyzed by the shock, he further shared that the specific complaint was that there were too many African-American women, on the management team. At that point, I could feel myself holding my breath, in utter disbelief.

I took a moment to collect myself at the table and started to replay in my mind the women that I saw walking into that meeting, all but one of them were African American women. I was hurt, as a woman, an African American woman and a feminist. In addition, I was offended for myself and for the other two African American female managers that sat at the table at that moment. As I sat there holding my breath in that brief moment, I thought about all the challenges, missed moments with our families and harassment that we have had to overcome to simply have the opportunity to gain a seat at that very table. And now here we are sitting at the table being criticized for being black women, by other black women. It would have been expected if the criticism came from the males that we supervise.

And to hear that the complaints were not about us violating policy, making inferior decisions, or negatively impacting performance, but simply because we were black women. And the most hurtful part is that the complaint was coming from fellow females, sadly enough other black females.

The managers sat at the table and listened to Vince and his suggestions for improving employee morale. And at the conclusion of the meeting, Vince and I walked back to my office. Because I’ve known him for years, we closed the door and discussed the situation very candidly.                  

I expressed how hurtful the entire situation was and how offensive it was for my colleagues and fellow females call him in discuss issues that could have been resolved by simple communication. Furthermore, it appeared to me that they were engaging in this old-world patriarchal bull$%^, by reaching out to him as a though he was our father that needed to be called in to resolve our divisional dispute.

As we sat there discussing the issues that were brought up during the meeting, he advised me that some of my colleagues were crying. And appeared to be really shaken up by the situation. This statement stopped me in my tracks.

They were crying.

Something that we did as a management team caused our colleagues to cry. More specifically, something that I did caused the people that I work with and work for, to have a negative emotional reaction. The thought of this shook me. Because everything we were doing was aimed at improving their lives, their work environment and the performance of the department. That thought stuck with me for days.

It would take me almost 4 days before I came to the realization that the problem was more that skin deep, literally and metaphorically.

Cognitive Bias in the Workplace

In an effort for us as individuals to make sense of the world around us, we will often make causal inferences of others consistent behavior. This use of our social perception will often cause us to incorrectly attach meaning to the behavior of others, this is known as the fundamental attribution. This form of cognitive bias can influence a person’s judgement and decision-making and unfortunately, because the judgement is based on a bias, the judgement is often incorrect.

Explanation #1

“A bias is a systematic deviation from a standard of rationality, an error frequently committed by the human mind.” (Caviola, 2014) The original 10 complainants attributed the lack of moral in the office to the physical attributes of the managers. For them there was a direct correlation between the managers being black women and the decisions to reduce socializing and increase productivity.

For this group, there were notable losses that contributed to this bias. First, there was the loss of the status quo. “Status quo bias describes the tendency to prefer the current state of affairs over a change even if a change would result in better expected outcomes.” (Caviola, 2014) Prior to the implementation of the changes to the structure of the office and the work processes, the office had not seen any significant changes within a decade.

And although staff were constantly apprised of any upcoming changes, at no point during these processes were the staff consulted for their input or buy-in. In hindsight, they were merely captive passengers on the journey to progress. And as expected for people that are averse to change, this was not a positive journey.

Another loss experienced by our colleagues during this journey was the loss of freely socialize and connect. While, our primary directive is to improve performance at work, it is inevitable that relationships are formed, often strong relationships. And there is a human need to connect, celebrate and acknowledge each other. With management limiting or putting restrictions in place that limited these opportunities for connect and staff not having any input or background information as to why these restrictions were put in place, understandably there was great emotional distress to the original complainants.

Explanation #2

Another form of cognitive bias that impacted the situation was groupthink. The union representative that walked around the office inquiring if others had problems that they would like to discuss with the executive staff, was encouraging the larger group of staff to become a part of the smaller group of complainants. “Groupthink occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.” (Psychology Today, n.d.) After the meeting it was said, the additional four people that joined the meeting did not have a true problem or concern, however they wanted to support their co-workers and were there in solidarity.  Moreover, there is a need to be a part of a group,” people want to be liked - they don’t want to stand out from the crowd, but rather, they want to be seen as ‘one of the guys.” (Katopol, 2015)

” Groupthink fosters a strong “us versus them” mentality that prompts members to accept group perspectives in the heat of the moment, even when these perspectives don’t necessarily align with their personal views.” (Psychology Today, n.d.) For those outliners in the larger group, this opportunity to support their co-workers gave them cohesion. They were now a part of the group and even though they didn’t agree with the complaints, they sat in the meeting and self-censored in order to have the appearance of agreeing with the group. Their instinctive need to belong superseded their logical decision-making ability.


Intergroup conflicts such as this one is common in the workplace, in families and on a larger scale these conflicts can be experience between tribes, sects or nations. In families, the conflict may occur between parents and children when it comes to where to spend vacations or the children’s preference for pizza for dinner as opposed to a healthier option preferred by the parents. And on a larger scale, two sects may be in conflict over land, other resources, or feelings of oppression. For example, the eight-year long conflict between Syria and Iraq that has caused the loss of life of almost half a million people and unsettled close to 12 million people.

Because groupings are not going to be eliminated from the family, workplace or community, it is imperative that we learn to understand and respond to these intergroup conflicts. And having an understanding that these conflicts often involve bias, such as the fundamental attribution error and group think, is key to being able to address and resolve these conflicts.

Although people will continue to use the mental shortcut associated with the fundamental attribution error. Research “suggests that individuals who have developed a complex attributional schema can alter their behavioral judgments despite their initial judgments. Developing a more complex attributional schema, then, will increase the likelihood of explaining behavior accurately”. Therefore, organizations should implement training programs designed to develop and improve social judgement.

And lastly, the bias of groupthink should be considered during an intergroup conflict. As mediators and leaders, it’s important to remember that our organizations are, “not just a collection of random people, but people whose identity is tied into being a member of the group. They have a positive image of the group and seek to retain that image in the face of threat. The desire to be part of the group and to keep it going exerts such a pull, that when faced by a threat, group members will make those decisions, rational or not, that will help the group continue.” (Katopol, 2015) These decisions that seem irrational to those of us outside the group, like a group of women complaining because their management group is made up of women, likely has a much deeper cause. However, in order to successfully work together we must be considerate of these factors and focus on processes instead of being offended by the complaints.


Caviola, L., Mannino, A., Savulescu, J., & Faulmüller, N. (2014). Cognitive biases can affect

moral intuitions about cognitive enhancement. Frontiers in systems neuroscience, 8, 195. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00195

Groupthink. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Katopol, P. (2015, November). Groupthink: Group Dynamics and the Decision-making Process.

Retrieved from

Ross, L. (2018). From the Fundamental Attribution Error to the Truly Fundamental Attribution

Error and Beyond: My Research Journey. Perspectives on Psychological Science,13(6), 750-769. doi:10.1177/1745691618769855



Monica Brown-Coleman has work in the public sector for over twenty years in a variety of capacities, including supervision and management. In addition, she obtained her undergraduate degree a Bachelor of Science in Communication at Arizona State University. And is currently completing her graduate degree a Master of Arts in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peace-building at California State University Dominguez Hills.

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