What media do you consume?  Who do you listen to?  Whose opinions do you agree or disagree with?  One of the key skills of living in the 21st century is being able to filter the vast amount of data, information, opinion and highly sophisticated marketing that are bombarding us almost every waking hour.  In order to make any sense of it all we are constantly making choices about what we pay heed to.  

While you may think that you answer the above questions consciously you are in fact heavily influenced by your unconscious biases or ‘Thinking Traps’.  If you think, you are biased. It’s part of being human. If you think you are not biased you are just deluding yourself and that can create some unintended consequences. The key to overcoming your biases is to accept that they exist and to acknowledge that they have a powerful influence on your thinking based on your cultural background, life experiences and the people you are closest to.   

This is the second in a series of mini-articles about the SEEDS® Model developed by David Rock which groups the dozens of biases that have been identified into five categories.  For a brief overview of the model, click here

S is for ‘Similarity’
The first S in the model is ‘Similarity’.  This is about thinking that people like me are better.  The feeling of similarity may be obvious like family or team, or it may stem from a variety of other distinctions like country or city of origin, educational or professional experience, ethnicity or socio-economic background.  There is a lot of research about how we naturally create ‘In’ or ‘Out’ groups in our lives.  Our ‘In’ group feels safe and trustworthy.  This stems from a deep belief that because you are similar to me you share my values and it goes back to our earliest ancestors.  So it’s pretty hard-wired in our brains.  In some experiments people randomly assigned to teams quickly established an ‘In Group’ which created greater liking for the ‘In Group’ members and more distrust and less liking of the ‘Out Group’ members.  This was measured by greater activity in several brain regions involved in emotions and decision making (the amygdala, frontal cortex, and striatum) in response to ‘In group’ faces. 

The ‘In Group’ also produces an interesting neurochemical called Oxytocin.  Oxytocin increases trust within the ‘In Group’ but has a down-side of producing a lack of trust in the ‘Out Groups’.  This can lead to a silo-mentality within a business where different teams don’t trust one another, undermining collaboration and collective problem solving. 

If it is not managed strategically, this thinking trap can lead to teams and even whole organisations becoming very homogenous and quite narrow minded.  This in turn can lead to a lot of fixed thinking and untested assumptions about the way the world works which produces poor decision making and a severe lack of innovation due to a lack of diversity.  

The Antidote
The antidote to the Similarity Bias is to find commonality with people who are different to us.  For example: common interests, values or experiences.  This allows our brain to re-categorise them as ‘In’ group people and not see them as a threat.  The ability to do this is becoming critical for success in our extremely diverse and highly interconnected world.  

All the research shows that diverse teams are far more effective than identical ones. This is even the case with all-male and all-female teams where studies have found that mixed gender groups out-perform single-gender groups, especially when dealing with complex problem solving tasks. 

So, what are you doing to seek commonality with people who have different opinions and views to your own?  Finding things in common will help your brain see them as part of your ‘In Group’, develop trust and help you gain better understanding of others’ needs.  It also helps you get valuable input and new thinking to solve problems and increase innovation.  

What are you doing to communicate the common goals that different teams may have?  This will remove ‘In Group’ and ‘Out Group’ tensions while aiding collaboration and creative problem-solving between teams. 

What are you doing to make your recruitment and selection process more objective to minimise the possibility of interviewers and hiring managers making unhelpful assumptions?  This will ensure you are getting the best person for the job, not just someone who is ‘like’ the interviewer or hiring manager.  

One of the most powerful skills of modern leadership and management is self-awareness.  Recognising and taking appropriate action to mitigate the biases of Similarity is an important ingredient of success for any business in the 21st Century.  So avoid getting trapped by your thinking! 

If you have any questions about any of the above or would like to know more about developing strategies for overcoming the bias of Similarity please get in touch. 

Remember . . . stay curious! 

With best regards,

David Klaasen 

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