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What Leaders Get Wrong And How To Be More Right


Being a great leader is a lofty goal and any leadership guru will tell you one of the first considerations on your path to effective leadership is to do the right thing for people. Focus on people, be empathetic, engage them and motivate them. When you accomplish these successfully, both employees and the business will be better for it.

This is all true, of course.

But while they are worthy aspirations, they aren’t easy to accomplish. What gets in the way are cognitive biases—and in particular a bias called “the false consensus effect’ in which we tend to believe our own viewpoints are shared by others, much more than they actually are. In short, our own beliefs tend to cloud our perceptions of others and of reality. This can be challenging for leaders.

What People Want from the Workplace

A helpful lens through which to understand our biases is in consideration of what people want from the workplace. Leaders and employees see things differently.

Global studies by office manufacturer Steelcase (including—full disclosure—my own contribution to the research effort) included eight separate research studies engaging a total of 32,000 participants across 10 countries*. They provide data about what people want from their workplace.

Safety is critical for everyone, including everything from air quality and cleanliness to distancing and density. But considering other aspects of their return, employees and leaders have distinct points of view. Employees want (in order, starting with top priority) support for collaboration, access to tools, support for focused work, team belonging and workplace belonging. On the other hand, leaders want (in order, starting with top priority) support for collaboration, the opportunity to host clients, the chance to expand their network, support for focused work and opportunities to socialize.

While the lists share some elements in common, they also point to some key differences. While team members are craving the technology to facilitate their work and desiring a sense of connectedness with colleagues, leaders are seeking to build their social capital and welcome customers.

Why It Matters

This research is important for a few reasons:

First, it’s great insight into what people want from their workplaces and what employers must provide to help employees work better—top among them, provision of safe spaces which support collaboration and focus. Second, it provides clarity. The process of bringing people back to the office, will require organizations to pay attention to many variables—seemingly a million things that will need to be in place for people to feel comfortable coming back. But these lists give a sense of priority—the vital few things on which attention and investment will be best placed.

Third, the data circles us back to the challenges of cognitive bias and highlights where leaders can develop their focus on employee needs. If leaders see things differently than employees, how can they learn more about what employees need? And how can they align on what matters most?

How to Reduce Cognitive Bias and Get More Things Right

Here are five ways leaders can overcome their natural inclination to assume others see things as they do. These suggestions will help leaders more accurately understand employees and more effectively meet their needs:

  • Look for surprises. Leaders should pay attention to their own reactions to things, because being surprised about something is a signal you’ve unlocked a bias or an assumption. Surprise suggests you’ve learned something you weren’t expecting. When you realize employees have lost a sense of connection with colleagues, despite the online happy hours you’ve been hosting, or when you discover an employee isn’t feeling engaged, despite your efforts at providing recognition, these are terrific indications things aren’t as you thought. Your approaches may not be yielding the results you hope for—and can be improved.
  • Ask questions. With the speed of business, sometimes leaders don’t take the time to ask enough questions and this can lead to an unfounded belief they have all the information they need (sometimes called the Dunning-Kruger effect/bias). Great leaders never assume they have all the answers and regularly seek new and different points of view—both in group and one-on-one settings.
  • Seek different opinions. It’s easy to inadvertently surround ourselves with people who think as we do and pay greater attention to information that agrees with our existing notions (sometimes called confirmation bias). But learning and growth cannot occur in a vacuum and leaders are more effective when they also consider new opinions, fresh perspectives and novel ideas.
  • Embrace change. Another mistake leaders make is to gravitate to the status quo (sometimes called status quo bias). There is typically more effort required to make change than to continue on the current path. But innovation and acceleration rarely happen without shifts. Wise leaders ask employees what’s not working perfectly and how they can imagine improvements. In addition to empowering employees, this approach has the benefit of developing creative thinking and generating new solutions which add value for customers.
  • Keep the big picture in mind. Leaders can also make the mistake of focusing too much on a single issue, challenge or problem (sometimes called the base rate fallacy). Effective leaders maintain a broad perspective, inviting input which may be contextual to the problem or which may be tangential, but can spark new ideas to address the challenges ahead.  

Great leaders seek to understand employee points of view and avoid cognitive biases—to support employees coming back to the office and in all things. What leaders and employees need when they come back to the office is instructive about how leaders must create the conditions for positive work experiences. It’s also a great way to consider how leaders can do their best to manage their own views and ensure they’re seeking out employee voices. Even if employees don’t all get a vote, they should get a voice and this will create the conditions for engagement and success as we come out of the pandemic and seek to work better.

*Countries included Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States.



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